NW, by Zadie Smith


Purchased from Indigo.ca

Purchased from Indigo.ca

Let’s start by considering the “London” that author Zadie Smith has chosen to make the centre of this novel. I am a Canadian, but I have visited London many times and consider it my favorite metropolitan city. Having said that, I have never set foot in the “London” that is portrayed in this book — that confession is not a criticism (except of my own lack of curiosity) but rather a positive nod to the author’s goal.

Smith’s London is Willesden, up in the NW sector. In fact, to be even more specific, it is the area around the Caldwell council estate, one of those characterless, spiritless, multi-storey collections of structures (with elevators that don’t work) that show up fairly often in both British fiction and television (think Luther on that front) when creative spirits want to explore what is going on with the under-classes.

Smith’s interest is in both the addictive “power” of that world, but even more important the forces it exerts on the people who are born and grow up there — they live and are influenced by a set of rules and principles that are foreign to those of us who have never been there. The author offers a hint of these in a scene where a doorbell rings in a Caldwell flat and Leah, the first important character we meet, leaves her “garden” to respond (“The back door leads to a poky kitchen, tiled brightly in the taste of a previous tenant. The bell is not being rung. It is being held down.”):

Leah is as faithful in her allegiance to this two-mile square of the city as other people are to their families, or their countries. She knows the way people speak around here, that fuckin, around here, is only a rhythm in a sentence. She arranges her face to signify compassion. Shar closes her eyes, nods. She makes quick movements with her mouth, inaudible, speaking to herself. To Leah she says

— You’re so good.

Shar’s diaphragm rises and falls, slower now. The shuddering tears wind down.

— Thank you, yeah? You’re so good.

The scene will provide a delineation that extends through the novel. For those who live in the Caldwell Estate, the place is like a magnet that both repels and attracts — on the one hand, supplying a force that impels people to do all they can to escape it; on the other, exerting an even more powerful attraction to keep them there.

Leah’s “escape” notion comes in the form of her relationship with Michel, an Algerian-born hair stylist whose principal goal in life is to get out of the estate and into a “real” life of accomplishment somewhere else. Shar, the doorbell ringer, is a Caldwell-native druggie with a story about her Mom being taken to hospital — she needs cab fare to get her there and “takes” Leah for £30, a “loan” that will remain unpaid (and the source of a number of conflicts) as the novel unfolds.

Leah’s story is one of three that author Smith uses to define the “NW” world that supplies the title to her novel. A Caldwell Estate native, she can’t avoid the desire to escape that Michel represents — but neither can she deny the power of community that says she has to support people like Shar.

Felix is the second character who is used to define the neighborhood, by this time even more specific: NW6.

The man was naked, the woman dressed. It didn’t look right, but the woman had somewhere to go. He lay clowning in bed, holding her wrist. She tried to put a shoe on. Under their window they heard truck doors opening, boxes of produce heaved on to a tarmac. Felix sat up and looked to the car park below. He watched a man in an orange tabard, three stacked crates of apples in his arms, struggle through electric doors. Grace tapped the window with a long fake nail. ‘Babe — they can see you.’ Felix stretched. He made no effort to cover himself. ‘Some people shameless,’ noted Grace and squeezed round the bed to straighten the figurines on the windowsill.

If Grace is Felix’s motivation to get out of Willesden, his new trade as a “mechanic” is going to be his means — although it may be just the latest in a lengthy series of false starts. The author sketches Felix’s story in a couple of excellently-done set pieces that physically “bridge” NW London with Central London. Felix negotiates the purchase of a rundown MG Midget from a rich toff a few blocks away from Oxford Circus. And then he heads off for a goodbye visit with a semi-retired prostitute friend in Soho. Unfortunately, the set pieces are so well done (they are hilarious) they ended up making Felix less of a character, rather than more of one.

Of the three characters Smith uses to triangulate the Willesden world, the one that most impressed me was Natalie Blake (but I’ll admit that is probably a reflection of my own class bias). As Keisha Blake, she was Leah’s best friend during their early school years. The relationship split for a few years in their teens — Nat’s got a good brain to her, she did escape NW for college and ended up with a law degree. She successfully trained as a pupil in a corporate firm near the City, spent a couple years in “community” law, but is now back in the corporate world.

Still, Nat and her husband have chosen to live near Willesden and Leah and Michel are regular visitors for dinner — Leah is convinced they are there only to provide local color and evidence of Nat’s roots. From this reader’s perspective, Nat’s choice of residence powerfully illustrates the “magnetism” of Willesden and the Estate, even for those who have “gotten out”. Smith tells Nat’s story in an unfolding stream of 184 vignettes (she numbers them; I didn’t count them) and they are an excellent example of a superb fiction writer at her best.

In fact, the success of those vignettes might best illustrate the challenge that I had with NW. It received excellent reviews and has been sitting on my shelf for quite a while — simply because I had read a number of “London” books (most notably John Lanchester’s Capital and Martin Amis’ Lionel Asbo) and needed a break. NW was shortlisted for the 2013 Women’s Prize (it lost to A.M. Homes’ May We Be Forgiven) and that brought it to the top of my pile.

As a final comment, I would note a couple of observations from book discussion forums about NW that were raised by readers when that judging was taking place: As much as they liked the novel when they read it, some months down the road those readers were having trouble recalling it. I suspect that will be my fate as well: I think NW is going to turn out to be one of those books that was much more impressive in the reading than it will be in the remembering. Certainly not a damnation of the book by any means, but a judgment that reflects its limitations.

24 Responses to “NW, by Zadie Smith”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    I didn’t find this the easiest novel to read but I think it was worth it in the long run. I still remember the dinner scene.

    Moving up and moving on is seen by society as a good, mature thing, and I think Smith examines that issue well through her characters.


  2. Lisa Hill Says:

    I think you’re right about the memorability or otherwise of this novel – I had to look up my own review to remember what I thought of it!


  3. Lee Monks Says:

    I can’t remember a thing about it. A stabbing? Someone getting conned out of money? Office harridans? I like Smith and enjoyed NW but I share this prevalent amnesiac issue.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      All those elements were there, but I will say no more. I do wonder a bit if the fact that Amis’ Lionel Asbo was such a strong character and his lower-class London so over-stated that Smith’s more muted treatment doesn’t unfairly slip in memory.


  4. leroyhunter Says:

    I had mixed feelings about this. While I can accept some of it is very nicely done, I felt it just never cohered. It seems a jumble in retrospect, and the 3 strands are remarkably unbalanced.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      You raise a point I wanted to address in the review but could not find a way to work in. The three strands are each done in a very different voice and style (most notably, of course, the numbered vignettes in Natalie’s). The author carries each of them off quite well — but I wondered what the point was, outside of simply being different. Part of what did get lost, for me at least, with the approach is the depth and coherency of the social commentary that I am sure the author wanted as a theme in the novel — it became a collection of observations, but not much more.


  5. leroyhunter Says:

    I think that’s the key Kevin, there is a clear intent for the strands to cohere, but the execution fails. For me Felix’s tale, in particular, seemed tacked on to the others…and yet there is a “defining event” in there that seems designed to force the pieces together.


  6. Lee Monks Says:

    I had a quick flick to jog the memory and this did emphasise my recollection of finding, like leroyhunter, the Felix part the weak link. There is also some terrible dialogue in there. It’s hard to know what to say: I thought it was ‘well done’ etc but I can’t help agreeing with Kevin on the whole: there is an attempt at socially-encompassing magnitude that fails. It’s a series of pieces stitched together. The pieces are fine, the together is lacking.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      For what it is worth, I too found the Felix part the weakest. I spent much of the time during it figuring out the reality of where it was taking place (since I do know that part of London) — Felix himself and the story line seemed quite predictable.


  7. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    Well, I made it to page 71, and had absolutely no interest in any of the characters. I loved ” White Teeth” and looked forward to this book. In the event, it feels like an extended gimmick, with a focus on being clever rather than developing either story or characters.


  8. Pye Says:

    My experience with this book meshes with Sheila’s. I obviously was not the reader for this particular book, and it totally failed to pique my interest at any point. I just found it monotonous, and had little sympathy for, or urge to find out any more about, any of the characters. Sad, because I really loved “White Teeth” and, to a slightly lesser degree, “On Beauty”, so I was excitedly looking forward to this one. I gave up around a third of the way through in favour of the amazing Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life” and am I ever glad I did! I’m pretty sure that “NW” is not a book I’ll be picking up again later to give it another try, either.


  9. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Well, I was definitely planning on reading this, but the lack of memorability and the failure of cohesion are very serious issues. If I want a book I’ll enjoy but may not remember much afterwards I’m much more likely to reach for some sf or pulp crime, something aimed squarely at entertaining. That’s not a niche I look to literary fiction to fill.

    Good review as ever Kevin, and very useful for me.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I was rather surprised that the novel landed as flatly as it did with me, because I too have liked her previous books (although would need to check reviews to remind me of details). And I like her critical writing.

      Having said that, I did think while reading it that NW might land quite differently with you since you grew up in a not-too-dissimilar part of London. You might well have a different experience than myself and many who have commented here.


  10. gaskella Says:

    I too had to flick back and remind myself what I thought of this book. Although it was far from perfect, I rather enjoyed it. There was some cracking dialogue though – particularly between Leah and her mum.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      The novel certainly had its moments and some quite good set pieces — but the comments seem to indicate that most readers found that it failed to come together. That doesn’t make it a failure of a book by any means.


      • Max Cairnduff Says:

        I’ve still been following these comments, and while I may still read the book in case of that personal connection that you point out may arise Kevin, it’s moved firmly for me into a notional beach-read category (airplane read, I burn too easily to read anything on an actual beach).


  11. The Book and Movie Reviewra Says:

    I did really like this novel inspite of its incoherentness. Have you read others by Zadie Smith?


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I read both White Teeth and On Beauty — I recall liking them but must confess to not remembering either in much detail. I guess, when I now add NW to the mix, you would have to say that I find her novels readable, but not memorable.


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