British writer Zadie Smith’s fourth novel, NW (for North West London in which the novel is set) is the state of London novel.
The novel, set broadly in three sections (there are five parts), tells the story of the lives of the three main protagonists of the novel: Leah Hanwell, Felix, and Keisha (or Natalie). A peripheral character, Nathan makes intermittent appearances.
In the first section we meet Leah Hanwell, a thirty something woman of Irish descent. As the novel opens Leah is fleeced by a drug-addict, whom Leah has known over the years. The drug-addled woman, who goes by the name of Shar, enters Leah’s flat one afternoon and manages to relieve Leah of thirty pounds by telling her the faintly possible (but mostly improbable) story of her child having been taken to a hospital (she can’t tell Leah the name of the hospital, which, you would have thought, should have made most people a tiny bit suspicious). Afterwards Leah is suitably berated by her French-African husband (Michel) and her mother for her gullibility. Shar, as it happens, went to the same state school Leah went to and lives in the nearby poor estate where Leah grew up. However, when Leah (and on one occasion, Michel) unwisely try to confront her, Shar’s companion gives them the message to leave Shar alone. Leah has a school friend Keisha who lives in a nearby, very posh area with her successful husband. Keisha is of Caribbean descent. Her family lived next door to Leah’s, and the two girls have been close friends since their school days. Keisha has left her council house life behind her and has become a successful barrister. She has also changed her name to Natalie. Natalie Blake lives with her husband, Francesco—the product of a brief liaison between a rich Italian countess and a Caribbean train driver—works in the city. Leah herself has a university degree in History but works in a council-run office for black teenagers. Leah and Michel have managed to move out of Caldwell, the run-down council estate in Willesden, of her childhood, and move into a nearby and marginally better (but still working class) area. Michel, in his quest to become rich, has taken to online investing. Leah and Michel meet regularly with Natalie and Frank, and are frequently invited to their dinner parties. Such invitations are a source of great pride for Michel (who runs a hairdressing saloon) although Leah suspects that her childhood friend is bored by the association and continues to invite them to the parties only out of an old sense of loyalty even though these meetings are beginning to irritate her. As the first section ends Lea and Michel are meeting with Natalie and Frank at the house of one of Frank’s rich friends to watch the Notting Hill carnival from a vantage point and safe distance. It is while they are at the friend’s house that they hear on the television that there has been a stabbing in their area, of a man called Felix.
In the brief second part / section of the novel we meet the murdered Felix, in the days leading to his pointless and senseless murder. Felix, a young black man, is a recovering drug addict (I think that is the phrase). He used to deal in and supply drugs, too. But Felix has turned the corner. He no longer takes drugs, he has got a steady job in a garage, and he is in a relationship with a woman with whom he hopes to settle down. He has taken to visiting his Rastafarian father, Lloyd, perpetually high on the cannabis airplane (and in urgent need of a shower). Indeed so suffused is Felix with the zeal to inform other drug addicts, including his former customers, about his path to recovery that on the day of his murder he visits an aristocratic white woman, now a junkie, with whom he has slept in the past. Felix informs the junkie that he has moved to the next level; he would no longer be sampling her wares, as he has a girl-friend of his own who is prepared to sleep with him and without demanding drugs in return. The next level Felix is talking about turns out regrettably to be the next world as he is knifed in the streets of Caldwell who have taken offence to his suggestion to them in a packed London underground train that one of them should consider taking his feet off the opposite seat so that a pregnant white woman could sit there.
The rest of the sections of the novel tell the story of Natalie Blake, Leah Hanwell’s friend, the reader. The third part, which is the longest, traces Natalie’s life from her impoverished working class childhood in the 1980s to her present day opulence. (It is never really explained why she changes her name from Keisha to Natalie). Along the way the reader meets a host of secondary characters such as Rodney—Natalie’s first lover and a failed lawyer—and Frank whom she ends up marrying and having two kids with, and whom, as the years go by, she falls out of love with. Natalie takes to moonlighting as a prostitute, indulging in gleesome threesomes with folks who have a thing for what is acronymically described on the website on which Natalie has opened an account as BF. It is inevitable that Frank will stumble on to what Natalie is getting up to (or down to depending on what her customers wish). This leads to a confrontation of sorts between Natalie and Frank with Natalie (briefly) walking out on her family. In the brief fourth part Natalie runs into Nathan, a bright boy from their school who has now become a homeless junkie. In the company of Nathan Natalie takes a detour of the area, from Willesden across Hampstead Heath to Hornsey lane. In the (even briefer) final part of the novel Natalie has returned to the loveless marriage and is impervious to her husband’s suggestion that she should find another place for herself. She then visits her childhood friend Leah where she remembers an incident from her (you hope) brief career as a prostitute which she is convinced will throw light on the unfortunate murder of the unfortunate Felix.
NW, Smith’s fourth novel, was published after a gap of almost six years after the 2006 Orange Prize winner On Beauty. It has flashes of brilliance but ultimately fails to enthuse. The plot, such as it is, is vapour thin. The novel is more like a hotchpotch of novellas which are loosely linked, as the same characters appear in them. You might say that the same underlying theme binds the different sections of the novel: the life in the twenty-first century London.
There is no settled feel to the narrative style. The first section is narrated in a James Joyce-stream-of-consciousness style. While there may be fans of this style I am not one of them. Stream-of-consciousness is not my—what’s the term stronger than ‘not my cup of tea’? In keeping with the Joycean influence Smith has done away with speech marks in this section, replacing them with dashes to indicate spoken speech. (She is not the first modern author to do this. Nadine Gordimer prefers this style, first used by Joyce, apparently, in all of her novels.) At times, the use of dashes makes things more confusing than they are already, as the characters change contexts mid-sentences. And since what they are saying is most of the time utterly banal, it is difficult to see what purpose it has other than testing the reader’s patience. Mercifully Smith jettisons the stream-of-consciousness style and returns to the more traditional territory (with punctuation marks) in the second part (involving Felix), which—peppered with astute observations of London life—is the most engaging part of the novel; also the funniest, until the reader is stunned into silence by Felix’s sudden and tragic death. The third, and the longest, part of the novel which tells the story of Natalie Blake is uneven. It consists of 185 chapters, many of which a paragraph long, sometimes comprising only a single sentence. Perhaps Smith is trying to give an idea of Natalie Blake’s life in a series of snapshots. You might not find it to your taste as you are jerked from one chapter to the next; reading this section is a bit like riding in a car on a road full of potholes. The chapters have got titles, some of which, if you have the interest and the aptitude (I don’t) to decipher their links to cultural phenomena, you might find interesting. The narrative style is detached—the protagonist is frequently referred to as Natalie Blake or Ms Blake. Keisha Blake changes her name to Natalie, probably to distance herself from her working class black Kilburn background; but she finds herself returning, time and again, to her parents’ flat rather like a murderer returning to the scene of crime. Natalie also has a secret life; that of a prostitute. Smith leaves it to the reader to figure out why this highly successful barrister, married to a rich socialite, feels the need to visit strangers in their apartments and have torrid sex, and walk the streets wearing skimpy skirts under which, as Felix observes, minutes before his death, the muscles of her buttocks ripple. You struggle to make any sense of it; it is unconvincing to say the least. In the final part of the novel it is linked to the murder of Felix in a very contrived manner.
Zadie Smith once wrote (while responding to James Wood’s criticism of White Teeth, Smith’s debut, and most famous, novel) that writers do not write what they want; they write what they can.
Zadie Smith (real name Sadie Smith) is generally recognized to be a prodigious talent, ever since she burst on the British literary scene in 2000 with White Teeth, her brilliant (if flawed) debut novel. She has been selected twice in the Granta list of the best young British writers in 2003 and 2013. I have read all of Smith’s subsequent novels up to NW, of which I liked The Autograph Man, perhaps her least successful novel, the most. On Beuty, which fetched Smith the prestigious Orange Prize is beautifully written, but is so heavily inspired by E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End (without any official acknowledgement, if I remember correctly), you could almost call it derivative. NW, Smith’s fourth is, for me the most disappointing; but she remains one of my favourite writers.