What’s it all about?:
This is the story of a city.
The northwest corner of a city. Here you’ll find guests and hosts, those with power and those without it, people who live somewhere special and others who live nowhere at all. And many people in between.
Every city is like this. Cheek-by-jowl living. Separate worlds.
And then there are the visitations: the rare times a stranger crosses a threshold without permission or warning, causing a disruption in the whole system. Like the April afternoon a woman came to Leah Hanwell’s door, seeking help, disturbing the peace, forcing Leah out of her isolation…
Zadie Smith’s brilliant tragi-comic new novel follows four Londoners — Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan — as they try to make adult lives outside of Caldwell, the council estate of their childhood. From private houses to public parks, at work and at play, their London is a complicated place, as beautiful as it is brutal, where the thoroughfares hide the back alleys and taking the high road can sometimes lead you to a dead end.
Depicting the modern urban zone — familiar to town-dwellers everywhere — Zadie Smith’s NW is a quietly devastating novel of encounters, mercurial and vital, like the city itself.
What did I think?:
Zadie Smith takes us on a journey to North-West London, an area she has visited before in her debut novel White Teeth, making it quite a special place. In reality, there is nothing very pretty about the London she portrays, although I think she has captured the multitude of characters that we call Londoners beautifully and with real vision. As I began reading, I quickly realised that the book is divided up into sections, each portion favouring us with a different character as its focus, and we begin to know them more intimately as individuals. In the first section we meet Leah Hanwell, a woman in her mid-thirties who has a philosophy degree yet works in an office where she constantly feels out of place among the other workers who are African-Caribbean, who tease her mercilessly, mainly about her husband who is black and a hairdresser. The big problem in her relationship comes when Leah begins to question whether she wants a family, eyeing her friend Natalie’s family circle with envy and yet relief that she does not have that burden. It is written as a sort of stream of consciousness, and was quite novel to read even if it may have been a little hard to follow at times.
Natalie aka Keisha (as she was previously known), is a bit of an enigma, and it is not until we get to her section of the book that we begin to understand her a little better. She is Leah’s best friend from childhood although they seem to have grown apart in recent times. During her childhood, and particularly her adolescence, she constantly felt a need to prove herself, due to both the poverty of her family, and expectations of society. She ends up becoming a fairly successful lawyer, with a husband and a family, but is she truly happy? The other two main characters are Felix, a reformed drug addict who is desperately trying to change the habits of his past, and Nathan, a school friend of Natalie and Leah’s, who has just spent a spell in prison. Both of the latter characters I would have loved to know a little more about as I found them intriguing. There is a particular sexual scene involving Felix that I can’t get out of my head – why did you put that horrible image there Zadie Smith?
In general, I did enjoy this book, which I am glad about as I didn’t really take to “On Beauty” and “Autograph Man” very much. It’s probably not a book I would re-read, but I would definitely recommend it to someone who has never read her before as her style of writing is incredibly unique and at times poetic. I enjoyed how each section was written in a different way and certain words and phrases were confidently attributed to the different ethnic types, giving a true and current picture of how London lives today.
Would I recommend it?:
Star rating (out of 5):