NW by Zadie Smith (Penguin Books, 2012)
“Ambitious though she was, she was still a NW girl at heart”.
What is true of her fictional creation Natalie Blake, is also true of Zadie Smith.
It’s another way of saying : ‘you can take a woman out of NW but you can’t take NW out of the woman’.
Zadie Smith’s last novel, On Beauty, transferred E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End to contemporary Boston. It was highly praised but met with some criticism from American readers for the lack of authenticity in getting the stateside vernacular right.
As a consequence, Smith has vowed never to set another novel in the U.S. and has returned to the safe and known territory of her manor, principally Willesden and Kilburn in North West London.
The loyalty to this zone is voiced by Leah Hanwell, the other of the two female protagonists in the novel,: “Leah is as faithful in her allegiance to this two-mile square of the city as other people are to their families, or their countries. She knows the way people speak around here, that ‘fuckin’, around here, is only a rhythm in a sentence.”
This is not to say that this is the most fashionable or desirable part of London. It is described thus: “Ungentrified, ungentrifiable. Boom and bust never came here. Here bust is permanent”.
I would hazard a guess that Leah, white, and the more ambitious Natalie (Keisha) Blake, black, represent two sides to Zadie Smith’s character – Natalie is swotty and conventional, Leah is more worldly, rebellious and less idealistic.
We learn how Natalie “educated herself on the floor of Kensal Rise library while Leah smoked weed all day” and also “…did not have the faith that she herself could be involved in that life [raves and partying] and still pass the exams she was beginning to comprehend were essential”.
Through these characters Zadie Smith explores different career paths as well as forms of disaffection with the values of their mothers and the different responses to the pressure to reproduce.
Another perspective comes in the middle section of the novel (NW6)as it takes a detour in following Felix Cooper, a 32-year-old who grew up in the Garvey House project in Holloway (based on Colin Jones’ photos of The Black House) but later moved to Kilburn. In one sense he is an outsider but part of the new NW, by no means a saint but managing not be sucked into the criminal underclass.
The more negative forces of change are partly symbolised by what the local paper describes as a North West Fox Epidemic. Foxes here seems to stand for unwelcome guests and destructive forces,Leah likens them to the “parasites” who have befriended Natalie’s wealthy husband. The presence of one outside Natalie’s new home (“a fat fox sat brazen as a cat, looking up at them”) suggests that this new-found luxury and stability is under threat.
Through Natalie and Felix, Black politics and culture are important aspects of the story but these are characters so fully integrated into the British way of life that it is the social, rather than racial, diversity that is a more dominant theme.
We note, for example, the contrast between Leah and Natalie’s relatively comfortable, materially successful married lives and those of women like drug addict Shah. “Why that girl and not us?” asks Leah, to which Natalie replies : “Because we worked harder……we were smarter and we knew we didn’t want to end up begging on other people’s doorsteps. We wanted to get out”.
Natalie’s conclusion that people get what they deserve in life is a harsh point of view that reflects a necessary response to the fast changing modern world. This is summed up by the slightly pompous authorial voice which asserts that: “It is perhaps the profound way in which capitalism enters women’s minds and bodies that renders ‘ruthless comparison’ the basic mode of their relationships with others”.
For all their differences, Natalie and Leah are essentially two sides of the same coin. The potential ruination of Natalie’s ‘perfect life’ is necessary for the plot although the nature of her fall is very contrived: a minor flaw in this fascinating and elegantly crafted novel.