Sunday, 10 February 2013
NW by Zadie Smith
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
It took Zadie Smith seven years to write NW and there is a lot in there. This review could easily be pages and pages long - but I’m going to do my best to keep it as short as possible. I found some parts of the novel intriguing other parts a bit dull and some parts confusing. It certainly left me with questions.
NW focuses on 4 characters, Leah, Keisha/Natalie, Felix and Nathan, all with the Caldwell Estate in common (a social housing estate for low income families where they grew up).
The story moves from the pov of each character, showing where they are in adult life and how they came to be there. The two main characters, Leah a girl of Irish descent and Keisha a girl of Afro-Caribbean descent are best friends. Smith alluded to an event that tied them together as children but it isn’t clarified (or did I miss something?). Apart from a period of separation during their late teens the girls remain close friends throughout. They both manage to escape Caldwell through education (Keisha more successfully than Leah). They graduate from university, find husbands and move into private housing not far from Caldwell.
Leah’s story starts when a young woman knocks on her door claiming she desperately needs her help. The outcome of this is unexpected but also underwhelming - which is also how I would describe Leah’s story, she’s not happy at work, her husband is so handsome all the women want him, she can’t have baby, her dog dies… (although I hold her partially responsible for that!) etc. You do get an insight into how Leah perceives Keisha/Natalie (assuming her life is perfect - see below).
Keisha’s story is more interesting. She reinvents herself by changing her name from Keisha to Natalie, ditches the NW ‘street’ accent for the Queen’s English, obtains a law degree, becomes a barrister, marries a rich man, lives in an expensive house in a nice part of North West London and has posh friends. What I found interesting was it gave some insight into the difficulties (and the consequences) of breaking through the barriers of class (and in Natalie’s case also race) in Britain to climb the social ladder. The more accepted she became among her middle class peers the more she became alienated from her working class family and childhood friends. Her mother treated her more like a ‘cash cow’ than a daughter, her sister became resentful and her friends envious. With all that she had achieved she wasn’t happy and this seemed to lead her into a sleazy underworld - I didn’t get that at all - but it was intriguing all the same.
The other two characters feature to a lesser extent. They are both Afro-Caribbean males struggling to get by (Nathan more so than Felix). Felix’ story is ‘a day in the life of.’ It starts with him waking up and we learn that he lives with his girlfriend, whom he loves. He visits his dad and we learn his mother left when he was little, that his relationship with his dad and siblings (one of whom, his brother, is in jail) is a distant one. We learn that he has two important things to do that day. One is buy a car the other is to extricate himself from his long-term-on-and-off relationship with an older woman. On his way home on public transport he has an altercation with a couple of youths. What happens to him after that seemed to be shoe-horned in to depict knife crime in London. In reality these youths are more likely to target their peers (i.e. vulnerable teenagers, often the ones who want to keep away from trouble) not strong grown men like Felix. Also, none of this seemed to tie-in with the rest of the novel (or perhaps I just didn’t get it).
Nathan’s story was the most subtle. He pops up in the background of the other stories (on the fringes just like him) and comes to the forefront towards the end. His was the most poignant, believable and tragic for me. As a child he was considered cute and liked by the adults, he was Leah’s big crush, he was clever and had the potential to become a footballer. Somewhere along the line he became a drug addict, a criminal and homeless. He may also have been mixed up in something sinister (that part was not clear to me either). One of my favourite parts of the novel was when he told Keisha/Natalie some home truths, about herself and about him. It gives some insight into how young men like Nathan can end up where he did. I found this perceptive on Smith’s part.
Not everyone will like it but I did (mostly).
My appeal to readers