Book | NW – Zadie Smith

Warning: this book post will relate very closely to the fact that I have moved to London.

Wait, what?!

I have moved to London. Bye bye, Edinburgh… Hello, London! I love Edinburgh, I really do, but not only could I not get a job there this entire time, but it’s not really where I want to be for the mid-to-long-term future. Does this mean I have a job here…? Um… no… After much deliberation, weighing up pros and cons, switching between yes and no day in and day out, upsetting and appeasing a lot of people, I decided to just take advantage of the sudden opportunity given to me to move. I don’t really want to go any further about how I came to be here but all I can say is that I am one jammy bastard being in the position I am.

nwLet me now awkwardly segue into discussion of the book. NW‘s title, for those who don’t know anything about London, refers to the postcodes of northwest London, (coincidentally not that far at all from where I am staying). In NW, Zadie Smith probes into the lives of four characters who all know one other from their shared youth, all of them having different backgrounds, races, classes, aspirations, social groups, life choices… The novel takes each character in turn and goes deep into their histories and minds to paint a sombre picture of contemporary London life in the northwest.

In terms of overarching tone, I was expecting something along the lines of Smith’s hilarious first novel, White Teeth. NW is not as bubbly and vivid, however it is much more experimental in narrative form. NW is a mishmash of various forms, using streams of consciousness, standard focalised prose, lists, fragmented chapter headings… Doing something like this is often gimmicky and unforgivably Modernist but Zadie pulls it off because each form seems to successfully reflect the busy polyphonic lives that intertwine in cosmopolitan London while preserving an authentic inner psychology. Through these interesting forms, NW delves deep into the relationship between the inner and outer self, what characters hide from one another and from themselves, showing how what one’s perceptions and expectations of another are nothing like what they should be.

The first character, Leah, exemplifies all of this. She conceals her desires (or lack thereof) in life from her own husband while herself falling for the sob-story of a distraught young woman she used to know who comes to her door in need of help. Leah’s development that takes up half of the novel is abruptly cut to make way for a new form and focus on another character. Besides Felix and Nathan, Natalie’s narrative is sandwiched between these two and her story takes on the novel’s other half. Natalie grew up with Leah and her good friend, Keisha, in a council estate. She digs her way out of poverty and into the privileges that being a successful middle class lawyer offers, but at what cost? Natalie seems disillusioned by denying her socio-economic origins and her life is filled with responsibility and banality: her life is defined by the narrative form’s numbered passages that convey her life, passages that refer to cultural commodities of her growing up, such as Friends, The Wire, Amy Winehouse, etc.

There is a nostalgic feel throughout the novel to a time of innocence and youth, to a time where everything was infinite and unchanged. These characters are all in their thirties, stuck with marriages, jobs, responsibilities and the frustration of being boring and middle-class. Characters that are less privileged are depicted as happier, freer, more authentic but they in turn are unhappy with their lot for various reasons. The grass is always greener on the other side. Pretty much everyone in NW is dissatisfied with carrying on or “making it” in life to some degree. And as such, plot lines are left unfinished or exposed, there is little resolution. There is an itching incompleteness to NW that suggests a general malaise of contemporary life; the title therefore hints these characters live their lives in such confinement created by both their social/cultural pressures and defined geographic space.

Decent novel, would recommend. It is pessimistic and depressing but a great novel for thorough and intriguing characterisation. I am excited to be living here so hopefully my own experiences in London will not be so despondent…

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