N-W is the story of two school friends Leah Hanwell and Keisha Blake. It is also the story of N-W London.
By opening the novel with the following description, Smith makes it clear that N-W London is her main character:
The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on school gates and lamp posts. In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside. She keeps to the shade. Redheaded. On the radio: I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me. A good line – write it out on the back of a magazine. In a hammock, in the garden of a basement flat. Fenced in, on all sides.
I think it’s also clear however, that although, in one sense, we could declare N-W Zadie Smith’s love letter to her patch of London, it is a love letter written after a long marriage, decades after the rose tinting has cracked and peeled off.
Following a short scene-setting chapter, Leah (the redhead) is disturbed by the doorbell ringing. Thumping on her door, screaming and crying, is Shar who – after discovering that she and Leah attended the same school and reminiscing about other ex-students – proceeds to scam Leah out of £30. This is one side of life in N-W London. A thread that is further explored through the stories of Felix, who seems to be changing his life following years of drug use and unsuitable women and Nathan, one of the people Shar and Leah remember from school; a young man struggling to carve an identity for himself in a society that doesn’t much care for him.
The thread running parallel to this is that of Keisha Blake. Now Natalie Blake, lawyer. One of Natalie’s functions in the story is to look at what happens if you ‘get out’ of the area/family/class you’re born into. Or indeed, if you really do get out. Perhaps Keisha/Natalie has simply switched one set of fences for another. This idea is further highlighted by the section in which her story (and that of her friendship with Leah) is told through the use of 185 numbered sections, some as short as a sentence, none longer than three pages. Yes, we could conclude that they are ‘chapters’ of Natalie’s life. We might also wonder, however, if this is Natalie playing by numbers, living life by the rules. Where have these rules got her by the present day of the novel?
‘Nowhere,’ said Natalie Blake. (N-W? An unloved hinterland? A place you can’t escape?)
The other prominent theme explored is that of motherhood. Leah openly (although she doesn’t seem to have discussed this with her husband) doesn’t want children. Natalie has three and this is something else – along with Natalie’s new status – that divides the two women. I can’t think of any other novel that has openly discussed the idea of a woman choosing to remain childless. What’s most impressive about this, I think, bar Smith’s decision to tackle what remains a volatile subject, is that she does so without judgement. Something that is also true of the lifestyle choices her characters make. She draws the scene and the people and leaves it for her readers to discuss.
One final thing to mention is the skill with which Smith creates and uses dialogue within the book. There is absolutely no doubt as to where you are:
I told im stop takin liberties. Where’s my cheque? And she’s in my face chattin breeze. Fuckin liberty.
‘Oh my days. Who’s punishing you, Keisha? Nobody. That’s in your head. You’re paranoid, man!’
Which creates the perfect foil to Natalie’s style of speech:
‘I work hard. I came in with no reputation, nothing. I’ve built up a series practice – do you have any idea how few – ‘
There’s no doubt that this is a serious work of fiction that explores key contemporary ideas not only about N-W London but about the U.K. as a whole. It’s by no means flawless – there are some typographical choices that didn’t work for me and I found the section devoted to Natalie slow in places (although Alan at Words of Mercury disagrees with me on that) – but it’s ambitious and left me with more questions than answers, which is something I like in a novel.
I’m glad N-W has been longlisted and I think it has shortlist potential. The mind boggles as to why the Booker Prize judges chose to omit it from last year’s shortlist though, this is perfect Booker material to my mind.