NW refers to north-west London; the novel is predominantly set in Willesden. Zadie Smith knows this part of London well. She grew up here and still has a home in the area.
Leah, Natalie (formerly Keisha), Felix and Nathan have all grown up together on the Caldwell Estate in Kilburn. Their shared desire is to move away from the place of their childhood.
Thirty years later they have all achieved this, with various degrees of success, although they still live in close proximity to the estate, never having left north London.
Each one of the four characters has, at the beginning of the novel, been successful in leaving behind the past, but not all have been able to move on.
Smith has written a disparate novel, telling the two female stories with different literary techniques. It begins with Leah being conned into giving a woman money when she comes crying for sympathy at her door, much to the horror of her family who cannot believe her naivety. Leah is now married to hairdresser Michel, a French West African, and lives in consummate luxury in north London. She has a degree in philosophy and although her origins are Irish, she works surrounded by Caribbean women who are amused by her idealism as she allocates money to charities in her “public sector” job.
Leah and Natalie were best friends growing up, but Natalie Blake, as she is now known, has risen up the chain to become a successful barrister. She is married to a “Negroid Italian” and has two small children. She is seemingly the pinnacle of success, which causes ire in Leah. Natalie’s story is written as a list of events that chart her rise to barrister.
Felix and Nathan shadow the two female characters at the heart of this story. Felix makes a brief appearance and Nathan, having never quite shrugged off his working class background, remerges at the end of the story.
Both Leah and Natalie, despite their success, are still governed by an inner uncertainty, unsure of their place in the world. By the end of the novel both have managed to destroy good marriages.
The success of the novel lies in Smith’s ability to paint a picture of urban life in London, a gritty place full of mixed races. She has described racial class and family background as being pivotal to the formation of character. Despite Leah and Natalie’s desire to get away from their background, it always finds a way of sucking them back in.
Smith has written a contemporary account of life in London. Perhaps in years to come this book will be used as a history of London.
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