NW takes a cross-section of a community in Willesden, North London, following the lives of four characters who grew up in the same run-down Caldwell estate. Leah and Natalie, childhood friends, have found their friendship strained by the different directions their lives have taken. Leah is content in her job and content in her marriage, except she secretly takes the pill to avoid the baby they both claim to want. Her narration is the most fractured and meandering, merging description and memory, thoughts and senses. In contrast, Natalie (originally Keisha) has thrown off her council-estate roots completely and reinvented herself as a lawyer living on the well-heeled outskirts of their community. But her transformation has left her with an identity crisis, as filling in her various roles as wife, mother and lawyer give her no clue to who Natalie (or Keisha) is. Felix is a young man with a new girlfriend, a pocketful of cash and the world at his feet. It’s the most inspiring and upbeat part of the novel (except we know that it’s not). And Nathan is, for most of them, the spectre of Caldwell – scarred, poverty stricken, and angry.
The narration reflects the consciousness of the characters themselves. It’s the free indirect speech of your A-levels, and then some (Mrs Dalloway is an obvious, and probably conscious, point of comparison). Chapter 37 recurs, out of order, because of its special significance for Leah. Natalie’s life is broken into 185 numbered segments that maybe smack a little of the creative writing class, but which I thought worked rather well. Smith’s writing is meant to evoke the bustle and jostle of London, and it is as dense, as crowded and sometimes as antagonising as London can be.
In fact, reading the novel I ended up with a Leah/Natalie split of my own. One side of me enjoyed the undoubtedly good and sometimes brilliant writing, the sheer joy of a novel that meanders rather than drives, sprawls rather than directs, and the pithy literary asides (‘People were not people but merely an effect of language. You could conjure them up and kill them in a sentence.’)
But the other side wondered whether there isn’t something missing. I’m not saying I wanted a moral of the story, but I did feel like it was a novel supposedly about class that wasn’t actually saying very much. For example, it wants to hate and satirize the middle classes, but while it manages a certain amount of self-aware eye-rolling, you don’t get the sense she really means it. Leah and her husband scoff at Natalie’s success, but they also crave it, and Natalie herself rolls her eyes at herself during one (stereo)typical brunch.
But the Thing that happens that knits the four characters together? That, that is reaffirming a whole load of stereotypes – those who seem to be scammers are, the scarred junkie commits the crime, a phone call to the police will sort it all out, the only victim of gang crime worth mourning is one whose making something of himself. Her Nathan section is the shortest and the one where the character is kept at the furthest remove, as though Smith herself has fallen victim to her middle class squeamishness and couldn’t quite bear the thought of spending too much time with him. But another part of me wonders whether she’s challenging us to look at how our prejudices work? We want to read books about working-class girl done good because it makes us feel more comfortable, as though we don’t hold the prejudices about the Nathans and the Shars that we undoubtedly do.
I don’t know. These aren’t demands that I would make of just any author, or most books. But they are ones that this book made me make! Like Zadie Smith, I had trouble wrapping this book up in a neat little parcel too. There are parts of exquisite craftsmanship next to some rather more difficult aspects (and a few editorial booboos – who carries around a bus ticket in London?). The infrastructure isn’t without its faults, but you can still have a great time. A bit like London…*
Other London-based metaphors for NW are gratefully received, nay, ENCOURAGED.