NW: A Novel by Zadie Smith (New York: The Penguin Press, 2012. 416 pp)
Zadie Smith was born in London. She went to King’s College, Cambridge University. Smith has written four novels and earned multiple awards including, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction, the Commonwealth Writers’ Best Book Award, and the Orange Prize for Fiction. She is a tenured professor in the Creative Writing Program at New York University.
The Power of Place
The power of place reverberates much further than any of us dare to admit. While we all hold unique personalities, the broad regions and specific communities around which we orbit influence us profoundly.
This reality causes people to offer broad stereotypes for different regions. For example, Seattleites are known for surface-level pleasantries but you better not expect them to open up any further.
Or, people from the Midwest are warm and friendly; you could grab a beer with any of them and feel at home. No matter the personality of individuals, these overarching cultural phenomena hold sway.
Some people want nothing more than to divorce themselves from the stigma of their community. Perhaps you’re escaping the “poor” side of town; maybe you work intentionally toward building relationships because you refuse to be known as cold or distant.
Through this principle, the central force of Zadie Smith’s narrative in NW becomes evident. We all are connected to a physical space. And that physical space, in part, develops who we are as humans.
NW tells the story of three people born and raised in a disadvantaged part of northwest London.
The narrative begins with Leah, seemingly the only white person in the “NW”. Married to a hair stylist hailing from France, Leah spends most of her time despising her best friend, Natalie. While everyone is growing up around her, Leah can’t help but prevaricate in every aspect of her life.
“So little happens in this corner of NW. When there is a drama it’s natural enough that one should want to place oneself in the picture, right at the center. It sounded like him. It really did. She tells Michel. She tells Michel all of it bar one word” (89).
Leah finds herself focused on a young woman who swindled her out of some money. She sees her everywhere around NW and she juggles conflicting emotions around desiring justice and hoping to save her.
In the second portion of NW, Smith introduces the reader to Felix Cooper, an assured young man hoping to work his way out of that part of town.
“’That,’ said Annie, pointing, ‘is not a gentleman caller. That is my boyfriend. His name is Felix Cooper. He is a filmmaker. And He does not live here. He lives in North West London, a dinky part of it you’ve probably never heard of called Willesden, and I can tell you now you’d be wrong to dismiss it actually because actually it’s very interesting, very “diverse”’” (168).
NW follows Felix throughout his day as he runs errands, meets friends, and drops in on ex-lovers. The reader quickly cultivates a connection with Felix. You want him to find success because he’s a likeable guy.
Finally, Smith concludes NW with Leah’s best friend, Natalie. Born with the name Keisha in a religious family, Natalie (then Keisha) has been running ever since. She runs from her faith, her parents, her boyfriends, and her family. Even more, Natalie is running from her hometown, northwest London.
“Sometimes they finished with a back-handed compliment , implying that the streets where Natalie had been raised, and now returned to work, were, in their minds, a hopeless sort of place, analogous to a war zone” (292).
Despite this flight mentality, Natalie earns success by the bucket-loads.
“Natalie Blake had completely forgotten what it was like to be poor. It was a language she’d stopped being able to speak, or even understand” (330).
Even with a loving family and a well-respected job, Natalie discerns a void in her heart, something she desperately seeks to fill.
Through these three narratives, Zadie Smith concatenates a story about northwest London in its myriad of cultures and socio-economic backgrounds. Even though these characters desire to move away from the place that formed them, they often can’t help but let the NW control them.
Just like the Seattle freeze or Midwest warmth, the places where we live and the places where our parents raised us are imprinted on us like a stamp.
NW is not a book for everyone. The narrative is choppy and there’s not much action. But if you’re willing to get a little introspective, NW offers rich rewards.
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5
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