NW is blurbed as the story of a city, a chaotic, rough and defeated part of the city of London. The title refers to what we in Australia call a postcode, though ours have just digits, whereas in London, the postcode begins with a geographic locator, in this case, NW for North West. It seems that, for Zadie Smith, a postcode means destiny…
The novel is structured in four parts, telling the story of characters wishing to escape their destiny. Their city is squalid and malevolent. It’s a place where poor people prey on each other. Kindness is gullibility. Characters loudly demand respect as well as exemption from the behaviours that make communal living congenial. This London is nasty.
When a pregnant woman boards the tube, Felix asks a fellow-passenger to take his feet off the seat so that she can sit down. An unpleasant confrontation ensues, so it’s Felix who gives up his seat. But the incident doesn’t end with the foul-mouthed aggression, it gets worse, and this kind of incident is portrayed as an everyday London occurrence.
Another small incident is also instructive:
126. Apple Blossom, 1 March
Surprised by beauty, in the front garden of a house on Hopefield Avenue. Had it been there yesterday? Upon closer inspection the cloud of white separated into thousands of tiny flowers with yellow centres and green bits and pink flecks. A city animal, she did not have the proper name for anything natural. She reached up to break off a blossom-heavy twig – intending a simple, carefree gesture – but the twig was sinewy and green inside and not brittle enough to snap. Once she’d begun, she felt she couldn’t give up (the street was not empty, she was being observed) she laid her briefcase on somebody’s front garden wall, applied both hands and wrestled with it. What came away finally was less twig than branch, being connected to several other twigs, themselves heavy with blossom, and the vandal Natalie Blake hurried away and round the corner with it. She was on her way to the tube. What could she do with a branch? (p. 222).
This London is a place where a local-made-good who is well able to afford to buy a spring nosegay, thinks of breaking off other people’s plants as a ‘simple, carefree gesture‘ and feels more embarrassed about ceasing to steal than continuing.
Leah, Felix, Keisha (who reinvents herself as Natalie) and Nathan represent people struggling against this tide. Their London is a place of ‘estate’ housing and schools which struggle to offer hope. For the academically successful or socially ambitious there are barriers all around – not just from the social class they aspire to, but also from their peers who sabotage any efforts to get ahead. Cheryl, Leah’s sister, isn’t jealous of Leah’s comparative success, she despises it.
The novel is written in fractured scraps, and mostly in sharp dialogues which represent the multicultural milieu that makes up London these days. The Irish community has moved on from NW Kilburn, displaced by immigrants from the Caribbean, Algeria, the Indian sub-continent and Russia, but the struggle seems to be not so much a matter of cross-cultural identity but between making something of yourself, and knowing your place.
People seem to be irrevocably classified. When a baby is born…
People came with advice. Caldwell people felt everything would be fine as long as you didn’t actually throw the child down the stairs. Non-Caldwell people felt nothing would be fine unless everything was done perfectly and even then there was no guarantee. (p. 238)
The only thing that seems coherent in the novel is the way characters are tattooed with their social origins. Everything else is fractured: names, relationships, events, thoughts, pop culture and technological developments over time, all these seem to spit out at the reader, sometimes looping back to make connections and other times not. It’s also a novel of thirty-somethings; there are very few older characters other than Leah and Keisha’s mother and the children have less personality (or plot impact) than the dog Olive. The narrative is meant to be like this; it’s a novel exploring elements of modern life written in a postmodern form.
I am not entirely convinced that it’s successful. It’s not the form or even the rather alienating subject matter: Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor explored the underbelly of London in a somewhat similar fractured narrative, and I thought that was very well done. It’s that there are aspects of NW that seem to me to be misplaced. Leah’s reluctance to have children seemed like an afterthought placed in the novel to make it relevant to thirty-somethings; there was no explanation for it (unless I missed it) and nothing to clarify the flaw in their relationship that made it so hard for her to discuss it with her rather nice husband. Nor did there seem to be any catalyst for Keisha/Natalie’s dalliance, and it was unconvincing in its execution. More importantly, there isn’t any real reason why Leah should have been so bothered by the intrusion of Shar and her scam for extracting money; the indignation seemed to me to be out of proportion given a milieu in which this sort of thing apparently happens so often that Leah’s generosity can immediately be labelled gullible. She should have known better, so why invest the incident with mythic significance?
K.Thomas Khan reviewed NW for The Millions and reading this review only confirmed for me, that cities are not all the same. Though I suppose the inhabitants of Caldwell would simply dismiss this opinion by scornfully labelling me privileged.
Author: Zadie Smith
Publisher: Penguin, 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Penguin Australia