Zadie Smith: NW

By Guest Contributor Lili Collison

October 16th, 2012

Zadie Smith achieved great critical success at the age of 24 when her debut novel was published. White Teeth was set in Northwest London, the area in which Smith herself was raised and currently still resides. It is to this area that she returns in her highly anticipated fourth novel, NW. NW is the story of four people who grew up in the same council estate and while they all still live in the NW postal code, they are now living very different lives, on different rungs of the social ladder. The book is divided mainly into three parts, each detailing the lives of one of the characters: Leah, Felix and Natalie. The fourth character, Nathan, plays a crucial role in each of the other character’s lives, but Smith does not delve into his story.

The two key characters are Leah and Natalie, friends since a childhood incident seemingly bonded them forever. Natalie (once known as Keisha) has moved the farthest away from their poor upbringing: she is a successful lawyer with a rich money manager husband, two children and a grand house to boot. Leah works as an administrator at a social agency and is married to Michel, a hairdresser who longs to have a child and move up in the world.

The two women are at a crossroads, both with respect to their relationship with each other and with respect to their own lives. Leah’s husband wishes for change – a baby, a more financially secure future – but Leah wants their life together to remain the same and goes to great lengths to prevent pregnancy, unbeknownst to her husband. Meanwhile Natalie has achieved everything she has set out to do and reached far beyond what her upbringing would have predicted, yet she is hollow inside. She has no clue who she really is and this leads her down a path of almost certain destruction.

The friendship between Leah and Natalie has become strained but it is ultimately because they do not seem to understand each other. Leah thinks that Natalie has the perfect life: “she is an adult”, Leah thinks to herself at one point. Yet while Natalie has definitely cultivated this persona, she feels she is merely playing a role. At the end of the book, a fundamental shift takes place in the relationship between Leah and Natalie and so the book, though at times quite depressing, ends on a high note.

Sandwiched between the sections about Leah and Natalie is the story of Felix, an easy-going fellow who is trying to make a clean break from his past and start a new life with his love Grace. Like Leah and Natalie, he is also at a crossroads, but other than this theme in common, the story of Felix does not seem to fit in with the rest of the book. While the stories of Natalie and Leah and even Nathan are intimately connected, Felix’s story seems to stand alone. At the end of the novel, Natalie makes a speech to Leah about why people end up the way they do and in it she states “people generally get what they deserve.” While this may be true of Leah, Natalie and Nathan, this is not the case with Felix; he is a likable character who meets a terrible end.

Some readers may be put off by the unconventional format of the book. In the first section, mainly about Leah, Smith’s writing runs together with little regard for punctuation or sentence structure; it is a stream of consciousness piece. The section about Felix has more of a story-telling narrative, but then the final section about Natalie is written in 185 small mini-chapters. Nevertheless, Smith’s writing is dynamic and she keeps the reader on their toes. She really has a way with words and she makes astute observations about her characters and their predicaments. Her writing alone makes this a book worth reading.

Lili Collison still gets tingles when she enters a bookstore or library and sees all the potential good reads. An avid reader and baker, she raises three kids who thankfully also love books and eating dessert.

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