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  • Writer's pictureCatriona Fida


“Happiness is not an absolute value. It is a state of comparison.” NW follows four Londoners - Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan - after they've left their childhood council estate, grown up and moved on to different lives. From private houses to public parks, at work and at play, their city is brutal, beautiful and complicated. Yet after a chance encounter they each find that the choices they've made, the people they once were and are now, can suddenly, rapidly unravel. Probably my favourite aspect about Zadie Smith’s writing is in her ability to convey the atmosphere of the city and its people. North West London is an area Smith regularly writes about, having grown up in Willesden, and in this novel she encapsulates London perfectly. I have also lived in North West London and feel the nods to geography were portrayed authentically, without nostalgia or voyeurism. I particularly enjoyed the scenes which saw characters adopting the role of flâneur/flâneuse and embarking on an area-wide walk which spanned the Kilburn high road and the council estates of Willesden, to the open spaces and mansions of Hampstead Heath. As the novel touches on themes of class, this ties in well with Smith’s emphasis on a London that is multifaceted in nature, particularly in this region which houses such a large rich/poor divide. While it references real areas within London, Caldwell, the estate this text is set around, is fictional. I thought this was an interesting feature since it has enabled Smith creative freedom in her critique of the area and the characters she sets up. Although this scene is recognisably a London one, the characters are universal and it is this which makes NW such a compelling and evocative read. More than just an ode to London, NW is a realist portrayal of urban modernity and of the everyday lives of the people that inhabit these spaces. Having read and loved Swing Time, I already knew that Smith was great at portraying female friendship and in NW this was no different. In this story, Leah and Natalie’s friendship arguably forms the backbone of the novel, the one constant in a narrative that is constantly changing. Through their friendship, the reader is immersed in their new relationships, careers and experiences of motherhood. I believe it is this aspect of the novel which will resonate with the majority of readers. In the narrative, we trace the development of their friendship from a traumatic event in childhood which brought them together to their teenage years and transition into womanhood. While they drift apart, their friendship having been fraught by new relationships and passing phases in their lives, they remain bonded for life through their upbringing and shared experiences. Structurally, NW is a very experimental novel. While told in four parts from four different perspectives, each section is written in a very different way: sometimes through dialogue, sometimes through lists but more often via streams of consciousness which go back and forth in time. At first, I was concerned that this stream of consciousness would span the entirety of the book’s 333 pages but I needn’t have worried. Smith’s language rapidly settles into lyrical prose that is easily digestible. Although I am personally a big fan of its postmodern elements, I can see how this might lose some readers. There is no denying that this book will not be for everyone. I’d even venture to say that there is no in-between with this novel: you will either love or hate it. Thankfully, I fell into the ‘love’ category and if you are a fan of character-driven narratives and books about metropoles, you might too. 9/10.


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