The back cover of Zadie Smith’s novel NW, recently long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013 mentions This Is The Story Of A City, the north-west corner of city, however that’s not how I think of it. London is something else, as is The City of London.
NW is a community, a fluid changing community, one of London’s many pulses; for some it is a stepping stone to the next stage, for others it is home. It has been a thoroughfare into London since the days of the Romans and in more recent times, the resting place for Irish immigrants fleeing their country for one reason or another, sometimes dramatic, sometimes not. And following the Irish are the many other groups who found NW their starting point to a life in London, that city of promise and unending challenge. NW is the same, the faces that pass through it, indicative of the era we are living within.
NW the novel is experimental, its structure changes with each section and after starting the second part which focuses on Felix, I realised that the narrative voice was being used as a metaphor for the state of mind of the character, a brave step or a risk on the authors part by commencing with Leah, who thoughts are all over the place and is suffering from that anxiety of a young, married woman with a successful career and a husband who loves her, who doesn’t understand why she is not content, or why she can’t admit that she isn’t ready to start a family.
So we start with the staccato stream of conscious thoughts of a woman who would benefit from therapy and/or meditation to still that rampant inner chatter, planting the reader in the midst of prose that is challenging for some and uneasy for those listening to the audio version. Not when chapter 7 is shaped like a tree, though that is one of the least challenging pages, one of beauty in fact.
But once we get to Felix’s section, things calm down, Felix’s major life troubles are behind him, the reading is easy and the pace picks up. Although he’s not entirely immune to temptation, he seems to have moved on from his more despondent days, he’s been clean for 2 years and plans to stay that way. To me, he is the only character who shows real signs of moving on, however he has not moved out of NW, his mistake perhaps is in staying and trying to convert those around him.
The other female character Keisha, changes her name to Natalie when she becomes a lawyer, an attempt to outgrow her past; she marries and has two children. She and Leah have been friends since their school days and their connection provides the one strong thread throughout the novel. Natalie, like Leah has risen above her past, but can’t seem to resist undermining it, with her strange behaviour, in what was for me, one of the least believable parts of the novel, in part because the author keeps us from knowing exactly what Natalie is up to online and offline, before she gets caught and flips out. I was hoping she might be more influenced by the role model of Theodora Lewis-Lane, who tries to advise her.
“The first lesson is: turn yourself down. One notch. Two. Because this is not neutral.” She passed a hand over her neat frame from her head to her lap, like a scanner. “This is never neutral.”
For me personally, it was in part a nostalgic read, Zadie Smith’s writing comes alive when she evokes place and it is a neighbourhood I lived in and around for many years, NW is the most complete and yet complex character of all, embracing so much diversity, inviting everyone in without prejudice and yet claiming some in the harshest terms possible. There are as many reasons to hate it as there are to love it and anyone who has lived there will likely never forget it.
NW is a melancholic novel about four characters trying to escape their past and leaves the reader with few signs of hope for the future, or at least that future is left for us to imagine. Those who focus on the uniqueness of the writing or who have some experience of /interest in these communities may enjoy it, while those looking for the traditional transformation of character, or any kind of escape may be disappointed.
Despondency is the norm and we will not be rescued from it, it merely lessens with time if we survive.