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NW by Zadie Smith: review
Zadie Smith's 'NW' is a hilarious and lyrical love letter to north-west London
By Zenga Longmore
29 Aug 2012
Zadie Smith has described her eagerly awaited new novel as “a very small book”. She is so wrong.
I have to admit, the initial Virginia Woolf-style stream of consciousness gave me the discombobulated feeling that I was about to float away to the lighthouse: “Four gardens along, in the estate, a grim girl on the third floor screams Anglo-Saxon at nobody. Juliet balcony, projecting for miles. It ain’t like that. Nah it ain’t like that. Don’t you start. Fag in hand. Fleshy. Lobster red. I am the sole… I am the sole author.”
But I needn’t have worried. Smith’s language speedily relaxes into lyrical prose. As a fellow north-west Londoner, I was awestruck by the vivid descriptions of my area – or “my ends” as we say in Harlesden.
The story opens with Leah, an idealistic young woman in her run-down flat in Kilburn. A strange, raggedy girl named Shar turns up on her doorstep and babbles incoherently about a sick mother being in need of money. Shar swears she’s local – she even has a gas bill to prove it. Local tribalism triumphs.
“Leah is as faithful in her allegiance to this two-mile square of the city as other people are to their families.” Leah lends Shar £30. This well-meaning action sets off a trail of events which affects every character in the book.
The plot revolves around four people, Leah, Keisha, Felix and Nathan, whose lives are linked by having grown up together on the fictional Caldwell housing estate; five tower blocks, philosophically named Hobbes, Smith, Bentham, Locke and Russell. Leah, of Irish extraction, and Keisha, of Jamaican parentage, have been best friends since childhood. Keisha has, through sheer force of will, propelled herself to worldly success. While at university she changes her name to Natalie, much to Leah’s annoyance. Although they live only a few streets apart, Natalie and Leah occupy different worlds.
Natalie runs her own law practice in Harlesden and entertains barristers and bankers at dinner parties. Leah struggles to earn a living dispensing grants to “worthy causes” in a festering Kilburn office. Natalie dwells in a grand Victorian house with her wealthy Italian husband and two children. Leah and her French-African spouse, Michel, abide in genteel poverty. Even a visit to the vet to treat their beloved dog is beyond their financial capabilities. Smith is superb at describing all that is unique about London. There are rich and poor in every city, but is London the only town in which the prosperous and the derelict live cheek by jowl?
On the surface, both Leah and Natalie are happily married, yet they hide important chunks of their lives from their husbands. Michel is desperate for children, but the prospect of motherhood is so repellent to Leah that she secretly takes contraceptive pills. Natalie’s secret is grubbier – 50 shades greyer. In describing Natalie’s escapades, Smith makes many humorous and salient points concerning men who are obsessed by internet pornography.
The lives of Nathan and Felix have plummeted downhill since they were bright pupils at primary school. Tragedy is only a crack deal away. Smith is impelled to explain why drugs and violence stalk the streets of London; why English society is so much kinder and more ready to open doors to black women than to black men. If she does not attempt to provide answers to these questions she is the only writer I know who is capable of tackling such gritty themes.
NW is very unlikely to boost house prices in my neighbourhood. “Ungentrified, ungentrifiable. Boom and bust never came here. Here bust is permanent. Empty State Empire, empty Odeon, graffiti-streaked sidings rising and falling like a rickety rollercoaster. Higgledy-piggledy rooftops and chimneys, some high, some low, packed tightly, shaken fags in a box.”
However, there is an unmistakable affection for north-west London and its people. Their voices are eerily realistic – be they middle class or drugged and homeless. I missed those voices when I reached the end of the book – and what an end it is.
NW is Smith at her most eccentrically complex. It is hilariously funny yet often macabre. Many reviewers have compared Zadie Smith to Dickens; I will add my name to the list. Like Dickens, Smith not only has a playwright’s gift for dialogue, she also employs a powerful social outrage with great humour to create thrilling works of literary fiction. This is a very big book.