Zadie Smith’s NW

I had issues with this latest by Zadie Smith, who is normally such a beautiful images-2writer.  That being said, there are a lot of things she does well.
NW is set in the North West of London, the poorer suburbs rife with crime and drugs.  Much like the lower socio-economic areas around you I would guess.  The narrative is split into three sections, each covering a different character and therefore perspective on the area. It’s an engaging idea, but not expertly executed.

The first narrator is Leah.  She grew up in NW and has married and re-settled in the area. Her husband is Mauritian – and she has to deal with the dark-skinned ladies at work who accuse her of ‘stealing one of their own’. She is also pregnant, which has overjoyed her husband, but has left her feeling ambivalent. She has an interesting encounter with a girl called Shar, a young drug addict that she recognises from school and sympathetically gives money to after hearing a ‘sob story’.

The second narrator is Felix, a recovered addict keen to buy a vintage sports car.  Felix is streetsmart, but also somewhat of a romantic.  And it is this romanticism that ultimately brings him down. The very seedy nature of these suburbs – which he has participated with and perpetuated over the years, comes back and demands its pound of flesh.

The third narrator is Keisha Brown, who renames herself Natalie (perhaps as a way to escape the stigma of her origins). Natalie is one of Leah’s friends, so a connection exists between these two narrators. But this makes little sense to me.  If some characters are connected – then shouldn’t all of them be? This is distracting and unnecessary.

Natalie’s chapters are short and sharp – virtually a whole life told in a series of vignettes. This story spans a much greater time period than the other two, tracking Natalie’s childhood, her studious high school years and early college before she rebels against the expectations placed upon her. She eventually becomes a lawyer, marries and is proud when she can afford her first home in an area near where she grew up. She later moves into the world of privileged Londoners.

None of these characters are able to escape their humble origins, and each of them is revisited or actively revisits this at the end.

I love the concept, Smith is a wonderful writer, and she has attempted to expose a world that so many would like to overlook. But overall this was a bit uneven to me.  I listened to this on audio, and to be honest, I would have preferred engaging solely with either of the two female narrators.


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