It took me five years to pick up a copy of NW and now I’ve finally cracked it open I wish I hadn’t waited. One of the best novels I’ve read this year, it follows four Londoners; Natalie, Leah, Felix and Nathan. They all grew up on the same fictional council estate, but as adults lead very different lives.
Childhood friends, Natalie and Leah, are central to the story and the book begins with Leah’s perspective. A woman of Irish and English parentage, she’s married semi-happily to a loving, ambitious man with a dog she adores. Leah has a low-paid job distributing money to charitable causes.
Geographically and monetarily, she’s far closer to their old estate than Natalie, a Londoner of Caribbean descent who sloughed off her childhood name of Keisha, and is now a home-owning commercial barrister, with two children and a wealthy husband.
One of the things I love about NW is the way it switches perspective. We learn Leah is unsympathetic towards Natalie and her new affluent lifestyle, but it’s only when the story moves to Natalie’s point of view that the reader discovers more about Natalie’s life, the discrimination she’s faced and the alienation she feels from her own family. Natalie also reveals the rocky history of her friendship with Leah.
Zadie Smith plays with language throughout NW. Each character makes distinct lexical choices, using vocabulary found in everyday London speech. Changes in perspective are marked by new writing styles. The third section of the novel (Leah and Felix are one and two) relates Natalie’s experiences in short, numbered sections. Past tenses appear and quote marks indicate speech. It makes her outlook simultaneously systematic and fragmented.
Leah sees the world very differently. Her chapters are a stream of consciousness and speech marks are exchanged for dashes. Sentences slide straight from thoughts to descriptions and into conversations. The writing takes some getting used to but gives an insight into Leah’s mindset.
Nathan, Leah’s former childhood crush, moves in and out of the story. We don’t see much from his perspective but learn that the once popular boy is now a drug addict. In contrast, Felix is a man on the rise. Other than a childhood on the estate he only has a brief, tragic meeting with Nathan and no real connection to Natalie or Leah. Felix has overcome his own addiction and wants to aim towards a more stable relationship and a brighter future.
While Natalie’s narrative stretches back to early childhood, Felix’s section is full of movement. It’s here that Zadie Smith’s ability to conjure up well-drawn secondary characters really shines through. She creates short, vivid descriptions of Felix’s elderly father, a kindly neighbour, an ex-girlfriend and privileged young white man. However, it’s Felix’s encounter with two people on a train that brings his place in the story to an abrupt end.
I felt it was these moments and meaning-laden interactions that helped to make NW stand out, whether it was a horrific incident between Natalie and an abusive white man at work or Leah’s gullibility and generosity to a woman begging for money. Many of these conversations are tinged with racism and class conflict; Natalie’s pleasure at being picked to attend court is quickly overshadowed when she realises she’s been chosen to add diversity to the legal team.
Verdict: First, I have a big apology to Zadie Smith. When I started this review I knew I wouldn’t have the words to do her complex novel justice. I found the language, style and overlapping time periods confusing but they combined to make a fascinating read. Many interactions between characters highlighted the underlying current of racial prejudice and class bias in everyday life.
To me, Natalie appeared more complete and fleshed-out than any other character. I’d have been happy to read a novel that focused entirely on her. She and the other three former Caldwell estate children, showed the ways in which ethnicity, gender, upbringing, hard graft and chance encounters can impact on life.