My introduction to Zadie Smith came from an unknown Londoner, squashed into a packed tube heading from Kensington towards Victoria. She was reading NW with an aura of bliss only art and sex can evoke—oblivious to all surrounding her, engaged only in the moment and the words on the page. I was going through a phase of seeking out female authored fiction, after a long three years at university studying only male writers. Based on little other than this woman’s rapture and a well-designed cover, I headed to Waterstones to purchase a copy.
Split into character-centred sections, NW explores the lives of four interlinked thirty-somethings. Leah is a social worker, cursed with an angry carousel of thoughts over her husband’s desire for children and her lack thereof, and jealous of her best friend Natalie’s idyllic life. Natalie (previously known as Keisha) is a highly successful lawyer with a seemingly perfect marriage, experimenting with her sexuality years after her best friend Leah did. Felix is a typically loveable London rogue, well-intentioned and looking for a simple life with his girlfriend whilst taking care of his recently abandoned and permanently high Jamaican dad. Nathan, whose thread weaves tightest throughout this tapestry, is my personal favourite. Though potentially a killer, his character is the most flawed and vulnerable—the most in need of attention, not on the page but in real life. He is a haunting shadow of London at its most dire: desperate, alone, always needing more.
“On page, the characters are born of the location—they are the labour of the rich and diverse history this area contains...”
Though the novel title is the postal code abbreviation for North West London, the story’s focus is more isolated. It targets Willesden and Kilburn; the narrative predominantly unfolding between these two districts. On page, the characters are born of the location—they are the labour of the rich and diverse history this area contains, and speak of its current state and future with such detail that it is like Zadie has put a camera up to the city and allowed this novel to act as some 333-page negative. But in reality, the characters appear to be offspring of Zadie’s own upbringing. As a north London native herself, Zadie has a rich and deep connection with the area—something that lends itself generously to the writing of this book.
Zadie Smith, British author of NW.
“The window logs Kilburn’s skyline. Ungentrified, ungentrifiable. Boom and bust never come here. Here bust is permanent. Empty State Empire, empty Odeon, graffiti-streaked sidings rising and falling like a rickety roller coaster. Higgledy-piggledy rooftops and chimneys, some high, some low, packed tightly, shaken fags in a box. Behind the opposite window, retreating Willesden. Number 37. In the 1880s or thereabouts the whole thing went up at once—houses, churches, schools, cemeteries—an optimistic vision of Metroland. Little terraces, faux-Tudor piles. All the mod cons! Indoor toilet, hot water. Well-appointed country living for those tired of the city. Fast-forward. Disappointed city living for those tired of their countries.”
“‘NW’ is the London I know of: divided by class, race, religion, and migration; with bustling streets and bustling minds; and juxtapositions between power and poverty present on every page.”
Zadie’s London is modern, fractured and edgy. She writes effervescently, peppering her sentences with local colloquialisms and knowledge so unique to the area that this book could also function as a biography of the town. She provides the area with the attention it so deserves and writes with the same spirit the city so readily evokes—a mixture of euphoria, loneliness, curiosity and hunger. NW is the London I know of: divided by class, race, religion, and migration; with bustling streets and bustling minds; and juxtapositions between power and poverty present on every page.
In chapter nine of the first section (titled: visitation), Zadie provides instructions from A (Yates Lane, London) to B (Bartlett Avenue, London). The instructions are direct and typically detached from the actual place at hand—they are a navigation system. In the following chapter, Zadie provides a redux of those directions: “Sweet stink of the hookah, couscous, kebab, exhaust fumes of a bus deadlock. 98, 16, 32, standing room only—quicker to walk! Escapees from St Mary’s, Paddington: expectant father smoking, old lady wheeling herself in a wheelchair smoking, die-hard holding urine sack, blood sack, smoking. Everybody loves fags. Every-body. Polish paper, Turkish paper, Arabic, Irish, French, Russian, Spanish, News of the World.”
Her descriptions are poetic, drowning in the customs and culture of the places she so aptly describes. But her gift for representation of place comes not only through her fitting descriptive language. Her words are so infused with location that upon reading that crackly, electric dialogue—the “laters,” the “bruvs” and the “innits”—it is impossible for the reader to imagine being anywhere other than North West London. As she drops syllables and conjunctions, as “I’ve done it” slips to “I done it” and “has” becomes “got,” I drift back to the noises and morning conversations I heard on my own walks from Paddington to Kensal Green, always heading west to Willesden.
Two years after that packed tube and the girl with the captivated face, I return to this book each time I feel homesick or hungry for London. It is a kind reminder of grit and resilience, of acceptance and tolerance. With global connections facing such trying times, it is a fitting lesson in the repercussions of isolation and social segregation, and a generous nod to an area that has so frequently been a home to all.
NW by Zadie Smith, 2012, 401 pp.
In Issue No. 1 we meet Australian fashion icon Jenny Kee, translator from Italian Ann Goldstein and French-Cuban music duo Ibeyi. We learn about Ramadan, the Aboriginal ball game Marngrook, the Kiribati dance, the art of pickling, and the importance of home. And we see what it’s like to dress up in Myanmar, live in Cuernavaca, make ceramics from different soil, and walk the streets of Florence.
In Issue No. 2 we meet Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson, and Croatian painter Stipe Nobilo. We discover how the French protect their language, why nostalgia blurs our memory, and the way women around the world have used textiles as their political voice. We learn the steps to prepare a boisterous Korean barbecue, dress up for Feria de Jerez and eat our way around Hong Kong.
In Issue No. 3 we meet Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki, Berlin-based musician Nils Frahm, and Moroccan-British artist Hassan Hajjaj. We descend to the ocean’s floor with Japan’s Ama divers, muse over the Bengali renaissance and applaud the detailing of India’s uniforms. And we try our hand at some treasured Italian recipes, visit one of Hong Kong’s homes up high, master the etiquette of the Japanese onsen and learn about the architecture of Iraq’s mudhifs.
In Issue No. 4 we meet Nigerian-born artist Toyin Ojih Odutola, Indigenous Australian Elders Uncle Bob Smith and Aunty Caroline Bradshaw, and Palestinian-American chef and artist Amanny Ahmad. We peer inside the Parisian ateliers Lesage and Lemarié, muse over the iconic lines of European chair design and celebrate the colourful woodblock prints of Japanese artist Awazu Kiyoshi. And we venture along Morocco’s Honey Highway, get lost in the markets of Oaxaca and discover the favours of Ghana.