Londoners know their city through their own locality. Zadie Smith’s novel NW considers four people from north-west London, who try to find their way out of the council estate of their birth and to make an adult life in London. None of them succeeds. NW London includes Kilburn and Willeseden.
It’s a novel about place and how it holds you, especially people at the end of all the important lines: women, immigrants, school failures, alcoholics, drug addicts, children. There is a tired joke, which is also a truth, that people who live north of the Thames treat south of the river as terra incognita, and that south of the river folk think those who live north might be in the area marked there be dragons. It’s another take on the connections between identity and location. ‘Should have gone Dalston,’ says Nathan Bogle more than once. It jolts me as Dalston is my territory. And I know how different it is from Kilburn. NW is about the city I have lived in for over 30 years.
I found myself feeling very tense as I read this novel; tense with the stress of city life, on the streets, buses and the tube, the perpetual movement of people, the need for wariness, the noise and language and the sucking hold of the place. Tense with keeping the right distance, getting ahead, not putting yourself in danger, looking out for your friends.
Out-of-towners know London by the underground map. Dalston is in Hackney, the only London borough with no tube line, so I understood how Felix has a different view:
He considered the tube map. It did not express his reality. The centre was not ‘Oxford Circus’ but the bright lights of Kilburn High Road. ‘Wimbledon’ was countryside, ‘Pimlico’ pure science fiction. He put his index finger over Pimlico’s blue bar. It was nowhere. Who lived there? Who even passed through it?
The four protagonists are in turn the focus on one section. All born on the Caldwell Council Estate, all students at Brayton Comprehensive School, they differ in ethnicity, and in their paths away from the Caldwell.
Leah, married to an Algerian, of Irish extraction is drifting in life, not wanting to have a child. She became pregnant but had an abortion without telling Michel. Her story is told in short numbered chapters.
Keisha/Natalie is fiercely clever and Leah’s best friend. She becomes a lawyer, a barrister, but despite attaining a middle class life puts it all at risk for sexual experimentation, which her husband can’t handle. I found that Keisha/Natalie’s section was the most readable: 182 short sections, some only a sentence, some a paragraph, some longer.
Felix is a man trying to escape his demons – alcoholism, drug abuse, women. He is mugged. The section covering his day making steps to improve his life is covered in three more discursive sections, labelled with area codes: NW6, W1, NW6 again
Rodney, a shady and dangerous but attractive man, drifts on the edges of the lowest of society. His section is brief, and covers the geographic areas of a walk he takes with Keisha/Natasha up to Archway, the suicide bridge, and back. You’d have to be as high as Keisha/Natalie to spend time with him. Or live in Dalston.
Some critics have suggested that together these four sections do not make a coherent novel, there are disjunctions between them. There is an obvious point that London is like that, the different areas do not hang together. But this is a tense and jagged city, where loyalty and love are to be found mostly – but not exclusively – among the women, the impossibility of escaping the pull of one’s past, these are reflected in the structure and the style of the novel.
Zadie Smith is rightly much praised for her dialogue. Here’s some texting dialogue. Leah contacts her friend Natalie, the lawyer.
woman next to me picking nose really getting in there
tried to call but you no answer
cant take private calls in pupil room what’s up
You got cat aids?
free may sixth?
You catch cat aids may sixth? I am free if not in court. I big lawyer lasy these days innit Big lawyer lady jesus
lady jesus I am getting married
that’s great! When did this happen???
Six in registry same like u but irth actyl guests
And more conventionally, Natalie/Keisha talks with her sister, Cheryl, while holding her niece Carly.
‘Why am I being punished for making something of my life?’
‘Oh my days. Who’s punishing you Keisha? Nobody. That’s in your head. You’re paranoid , man!’
Natalie Blake could not be stopped. ‘I work hard. I came in with no reputation, nothing. I’ve built up a serious practice – do you have any idea how few –‘
‘Did you really come round here to tell me what a big woman you are these days?’
‘I came round to try and help you.’
‘But no one in here is looking for your help Keisha! This is it! I ain’t looking for you, end of.’
And now they had to transfer Carly from Natalie’s shoulder to her mother’s, a strangely delicate operation in the middle of the carnage.
I agree that her dialogue is spot on, captures the rhythms, the colloquialisms and idioms of London talk. And she is also lyrical and inventive in description. Chapter 9 reproduces google-type directions from A – B, complete with caveats. ‘These directions are for planning purposes only.’ Chapter 10 is a lyrical repeat of the journey, impressionistic, drawing on the senses, of smell, sound, sight and including a commentary on aspirations of the inhabitants. Some of it is alliterative (‘Lone Italian, loafers, lost, looking for Mayfair.’), poetic (‘Open-top, soft-top, drive-by, hip hop.’); shocking (‘Here is the school where they stabbed the headmaster.’); but it’s all London.
Overall this novel presents a bleak view of life in London, but it moves along with verve and spirit. It deals with serious matters. I read in one blog review that this is the first novel to discuss women who do not want to be mothers. I am not sure about that. But it is the first novel I have read where the skills required to be a Londoner are laid out. Perhaps that’s why it made me feel so tense when I was reading it.
I’m currently reading all the shortlisted novels for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013. This is my fourth. So much good writing by women.