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.