Zadie Smith’s new novel, NW, surprised me. I was expecting something like White Teeth or On Beauty, but the complexity and intense poetry of this created something strong and unexpected. It primarily charts the lives of best friends Leah and Keisha who grow up together on the same estate. Though it initially focuses on Leah, I preferred the later section, ‘Host’, that adopts Keisha’s perspective in brief scenes, told with the senses of memory, that bring them from childhood to adulthood. It explores whether Keisha can successfully negotiate a class transition. She chooses a new name, Natalie, for her new life as she succeeds professionally and marries wealthy Frank, who looks like ‘he was born on a yacht somewhere in the Caribbean and raised by Ralph Lauren’. Zadie Smith’s characters are, as always, multifaceted and very authentic. I loved her description of Keisha’s teenage angst:
‘It did not strike Keisha Blake that such feelings of alienation are the banal fate of adolescents everywhere. She considered herself peculiarly afflicted, and it is not an exaggeration to say that she struggled to think of anyone besides perhaps James Baldwin and Jesus who had experienced the profound isolation and loneliness that she now knew to be the one and only true reality in this world.’
The lives of two men are also introduced in this anthropological consideration of an urban landscape. Felix and Nathan have both struggled to establish functional lives after their beginnings on the Caldwell estate. Poverty, failure and distress are never far from the lives of NW’s people; there seems to be a sort of inevitable tragedy about this novel. The moment that struck me the most was when Natalie and Nathan meet for the last time in the text. She tells him, ‘It’s weird to me that you can be so vital to another person and never know it. You were so…loved’. Yet that can do little for him.
There are moments that show Zadie Smith’s clever humour. Cultural references ground the chronology realistically, though some were rather lost on me. I struggled a little with some of the prose as semi-sentences often tailed off, as if I inherently knew what she was getting at. I’m afraid I didn’t. Unfortunately, my professional brain also initially interfered with my enjoyment; I kept thinking how difficult it would be to proofread! Once I got past my grammatical fixations, I found the creativity of form refreshing.
NW is just right in some ways. Reading it feels like a trip to London: a city sometimes dense, stressful and un-cohesive, but ultimately it provides a chance to see a cross-section of life in glimpses. It is sometimes beautiful or brutal, but it is always vital and feels essentially real and alive.