NW by Zadie Smith

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This very jazzy blue and red striped hardback is a rather fragmented read. The structure of the book is divided into four main sections for each of the four characters. Moreover, Smith is experimental with form: snapshot sentences, emboldened text, short sections, white space on the page; all of which add to the unconventional reading of the work. The point Smith makes is that there is no real story here, nor is she working along one single plot line. Instead we find ourselves reading a series of complex experiences, memories, recollections and character developments concerning the past, present and future, all at once. It is Smith’s triumph to pull that off coherently.

In case you haven’t worked it out yet the title NW is an abbreviation for the North West part of London. Being a ‘W’ Londoner myself, I was intrigued to read about pockets of London that I know very little about. Many of the reviews of this highly anticipated novel (Zadie Smith was nominated in Granta’s Best Young Novelists a second time this year) have already picked up on the fact that this is a novel deeply concerned with locality and place: Willesden and Kilburn mainly. Smith manages to mesh place with character so well that NW London bus routes, road names and council estates serve to validate the characters’ experiences, their progression (or lack of) but vitally – Indeed, their own existence.

There are four separate characters in the book; Leah, Natalie, Nathan and Felix but the London council estate where they all grew up, connects them all. This is a gritty urban novel and I admire Smith for her verisimilitude. I don’t want to read about the success stories or the high-risers; I want to read about the struggles, the all-too-real street culture, in which for some, the crushing inability to escape or move away from your estate is a reality.

by Heather Wells