It’s been a long time between novels for Zadie Smith – her last, On Beauty, was published in 2005. In her defence, she has been busy having a real life, getting married and having a baby. NW is a return to Smith’s own childhood neighbourhood – the north-west of London (hence the title). It is her shortest work yet, though is perhaps her most experimental work, particularly in terms of formal structure if not in thematic concern.
Leah has been friends with Keisha ever since Keisha saved Leah from drowning at the age of four. As with all childhood friendships, the two have grown apart as they grow up, go to university, get jobs and find partners. But Leah still lives on the council estate they grew up on, while Keisha moved away, changed her name to Natalie, and has become a successful lawyer. When Leah has an uncomfortable encounter with a girl on the estate, the two women find themselves once again drawn into each other’s lives.
I’ve never been to London, let alone north-west London, so I can claim no expertise on whether or not Smith has accurately evoked the neighbourhoods of Willesden. Besides, specific urban geography does not worry me. What does interest me is the concept of these London council estates, in which a true melting pot of disparate groups find themselves shoulder to shoulder, denied access to the mainstream. It becomes something of a petri dish, then, particularly for the authors who portray them, allowing them almost unlimited scope in their quest to explore the three backbones of lit crit – race, class and gender.
The first section, Leah’s story, focuses on gender. Interestingly, just as the recent debate in the US and around the world in regards to women’s rights has been closely linked to questions of control over the reproductive cycle, so too does Smith equate a kind of feminism with contraception. Though Michel is desperate to start a family, Leah is unsure and so, in secret, continues to take the pill in order to prevent her getting pregnant. It is interesting to chart the difference between the genders here – though Leah does not want She finds herself unable to communicate to Michel why it is exactly that she does not want a child. As the section moves to the end, we discover that, in fact, Leah is not even attracted to men.
Threaded through Leah’s life are questions of race. She works as a social worker, having been to university and studied. But she works with women who didn’t have that chance, and as the only white woman in the office, she finds herself the target of what are not doubt intended to be jokey cracks about her perfect life. There is a sense, though, that these are not just jokes – these black women are framing their very real jealousies with humour to make them seem less petty, less cruel. Nevertheless, there is a cruel streak in their taunting, and for Leah, who already seems to be highly strung, her workplace becomes a place of stress.
Moving to the second section, Smith turns her gaze on to questions of race. Felix is a recovering addict, and wants to buy a car. And so we follow him in this seemingly simple endeavour – he has found someone willing to sell him the model and make he wants, so he can fix it up. He meets this posh white university student, and a comedy of errors ensues. But what’s the term when a comedy of errors simply becomes errors? Felix decides to see his ex-girlfriend (and the father of his children), in the hope that she, too, has cleaned up her act. Sadly – for him and for us – she has not. Smith paints this junkie as a figure of pity, but also as one not deserving of our respect. We like Felix – I think he is probably the most likeable of the four main characters – and so we don’t like her. Her inability to see what she is doing to herself, and to the people around her, upsets Felix, who has managed to find a way out of the quagmire that is
a life of drug-taking.
We are taken then to Natalie, whose story is told in fragments – tiny chapters, most no longer than a few paragraphs. This is the kind of writing I can get behind, and certainly the one to which I reacted most positively. Just as I loved it in Chinaman, this fragmentary style allows witty, as well as emotional, asides to act as a counterpoint to the main melody of the narrative that is Natalie escaping the shackles of her class upbringing. It is this drift – away from the council estate of predominantly non-white poor people, towards the moneyed white upper-classes – that provides the most friction between the two women. Though she has moved off the estate, and is now comfortably middle-class, Natalie still wants to be seen as a, if you’ll forgive the cliché, a strong independent black woman. In a world of milk-white skin, she provides local colour, and is often used for political gains by people around her. The question of her taking silk, for example, rapidly becomes a question of whether the bar is ready for a non-white, non-male silk – it becomes less about her abilities as a lawyer, and more about her race, gender, and to a certain extent, class. She has the perfect middle-class family, a husband, a son and daughter, but there does seem to be something missing. One cannot help but wonder if there’s anything to be made of the fact that both of the women here view motherhood with suspicion. Leah is so desperate to avoid getting pregnant in the first place, and for a long time, Natalie cannot deal with her children, relinquishing control to a parade of nannies.
I mentioned a little while ago that I appreciated the use of technology in Michelle de Kretser’s new novel, because I don’t think authors explore it the kind of seriousness it deserves. But it comes up again here, as Natalie, in an attempt to escape the inanity of her life, finds solace on the internet. It is perhaps the only part of the novel that veers away from the hyper-realist tone set up by Smith. Natalie doesn’t only find solace on the internet; she finds solace in late-night hook-ups with strangers from the internet, a past-time that comes to a head when she offers herself as the token woman in a threesome with two much, much younger men. It it, to say the least, a strange scene, but it does set up the final sequence.
The blurb of NW, as well as many of the reviews, make reference to the novel following four characters. I have only mentioned three so far. The last, Nathan Bogle, remains little more than a ghostly figure for most of the novel – much referenced and discussed, but little seen outside of a few mentions of him smoking pot and getting high. His is the last section, and for me to say much about it would be to ruin much of the ostensible plot of the novel, so I’ll try to keep it brief. He and Natalie find each other, and in a gorgeous evocation of north-west London, find themselves wandering around their old haunts. This is their land, and they know it well. No one can take that away from them.
It would have been easy for Zadie Smith to write another thick, hysterical realist novel and for us to all be happy with it. But experimentation with form and theme is the sign of a great writer. Smith’s dip into modernism is not perfect, but it’s pretty darn close. It allows her to explore her pet themes – the collision of race, class and gender in a very specific part of contemporary London. Hopefully this is the beginning of a beautiful new phase of her career.