The Penguin Press
NW might be set in (northwest) London, but its central question, about the pathway to success, is one that is increasingly the subject of public discourse across the pond. How much does place play into the people we become? Does race matter? How complex is the web of socio-economic factors that one must negotiate to achieve success in life? What does success even mean? These are the complex questions that the talented Zadie Smith looks to explore in NW.
The setting is one that Smith, who grew up in the area, knows like the back of her hand. It is one that Smith has visited before to great success in her previous novels, especially in her spectacular debut, White Teeth. The neighborhood is itself a living breathing character in the book: “Ungentrified, ungentrifiable. Boom and bust never come here. Here bust is permanent.” At its most basic, NW traces the lives of two childhood friends: Leah Hanwell and Natalie (Keisha) Blake. Best friends while at school, their paths have led to significantly different places in adulthood. Leah Hanwell, of white Irish heritage, is getting by as a social worker in an agency where all the other workers are black and who poke gentle fun at Leah’s marriage to a black hairdresser with outsized ambitions, Michele. Natalie, on the other hand, is a wealthy lawyer who seems to have it all—happy children, a happy marriage, a big house, and all the material perks that come with contemporary living. Sprinkled into the narrative of their lives are those of others who add to this beautiful story.
Of course, there are shades of gray in the narrative: Natalie’s life is not all that great; she is worried she is falling out of love with her husband and eventually finds that a life full of everything she thought she wanted can still be vacuous and unsatisfactory. It doesn’t help that she gets pointed out that the life she wanted is now too plain old vanilla. “Not everyone wants this conventional little life you’re rowing your boat toward. I like my river of fire,” a friend tells her. A black woman who has made it big, Natalie finds she has to explain her status in life. Guilt is a large part of the story—white guilt at leaving so many blacks impoverished, and guilt again when success is part of the equation for someone like Natalie. It is, after all, as Smith quotes Nietzsche in the book, “an age of comparison.” Natalie examines Leah’s life and wonders if she would have been happier with less. Leah, for her part, wonders why she has to bear children, like her husband wants, in order to be happy.
NW is written in a mix of writing styles—long, rambling sequences are followed by an entire section told in staccato briefs. The mishmash of styles might work to represent the voices of different characters in the story, but in the end they don’t seem to coalesce to a larger whole. The prose is often too self-aware to move beyond its confining structures and actually focus on the story.
Despite this, NW will be seen as a work that cements Smith’s capacity for empathy and the recognition of class divides even in contemporary London. NW’s sharp look at the complicated arcs seemingly similar lives can take is worth reading for this reason alone. “Natalie Blake had completely forgotten what it was like to be poor. It was a language she’d stopped being able to speak, or even to understand,” Smith writes. Perhaps this is the wake-up call for our times. After all, if there’s one thing the world needs more of, it’s empathy. It is best then to take this one piece of advice in NW to heart: “Don’t imagine your contempt is invisible. You’ll find out as you mature that life is a two-way mirror.”