Zadie Smith returns to North West London in her latest novel. It’s not perfect, but Eli Davies is charmed
North West London played a big part in my mid-20s. I lived in Kilburn, my brother lived up the road in Cricklewood and I had friends in Willesden. All of us had read Zadie Smith’s first novel White Teeth, set in Willesden, and we often referred to it in conversation. White Teeth was about the jumble of life in North West London and how people, often from wildly different backgrounds, rub along amid it. The book was alive to the tensions and difficulties of the area, but also to its weird charms. You got a sense that Smith loved Willesden, that she basically liked all her characters, and I suppose it was that to which we all responded, because we liked it there too.
And so it is in NW, her fourth novel, back on this home turf. After a period of literary wandering, it feels like she’s returning to the place and the people that she loves. She is once again exploring the chaos of urban existence, but, 12 years and three books down the line, the concerns, unsurprisingly, feel more weighty. The tensions of the city are more present and the writing has slowed down; there is less of the hyperactivity of White Teeth, with its multiple characters and plotlines, and more concentrating on the serious business of what it means to be alive in London.
The main focus of NW is the friendship between Leah and Natalie (Keisha until she changes her name in her late teens). The pair grow up on the same estate in Willesden and the book tells their story, from their first meeting at the pool in their carefree childhood, to their anxiety-ridden mid-30s. There are four parts to the book and time and point of view shift with each one. The first belongs to Leah and takes place in the present; then we jump back to a slightly disorientating section which chronicles the day of local character Felix, as he zips around town, doing deals and visiting his father and ex. The final two sections are from Natalie’s point of view. The first of these is the most thorough, starting in childhood and taking us to adulthood – and then a brief section at the end brings us up to date, providing a resolution, of sorts.’
As is said of Joyce’s Dublin, in NW, London is a kind of character of its own. Smith’s attention to detail is meticulous: many of the journeys described could probably be traced on a map. She also has a nice observational touch for the details of contemporary London, listing the sights, sounds and smells of a journey down Edgware Road, its fried chicken shops and shisha pipes, designer labels and millionaires’ mansions. There are great subtle insights into city dwellers and their peculiar interactions: after holding up the queue in a busy shop, Felix experiences the shame “of a Londoner who has inconvenienced…another Londoner”. When he buys a drink in a pub full of oddballs we see a fleeting camaraderie between barmaid and punter. Description is one of Smith’s strengths, and the writing zips along nicely, but I get the sense sometimes that she wants to put all of the London in her head down on the page – this can feel dizzying and the details can lose you.
Female friendship takes our main attention. Love interests are fairly peripheral – the great drama is between Leah and Natalie. Place is inextricably bound up with this: in childhood, they hang about on the Caldwell Estate, playing pranks and mucking around with boys. Smith gives us some sweet moments of girlhood friendship: a list they make of their favourite pop stars, their ambitions, the boys they fancy, the little excited dance they perform when taken to the local McDonald’s as a treat.
Friendship in this book is not something easy, though, but a space where difficult questions of identity and self-worth get thrashed out. With adolescence and secondary school Leah and Keisha develop in different directions. Keisha studies hard, goes to her local church and starts going out with Rodney, a studious fellow Caribbean of whom her mother approves. Leah takes a bohemian, indie-kid path, floating off to hang out with her French-film-watching mates in Camden Town. They grow apart and in adulthood the friendship is a site of antagonism, of different and competing values. Natalie has shot up the social ladder, and lives with her wealthy, City-worker husband in a large house overlooking Queen’s Park. Leah lives with her own husband in a basement council flat and has a badly paid job for a charity.
For Leah and Natalie, being a woman is a hard, complex business. Smith is good on the anxiety and insecurity that the tropes of conventional womanhood – motherhood, marriage – provoke. The characters are constantly negotiating the boundaries of who they are within their work, their relationships and their friendship. In the hospital, after Natalie has her first child, Leah, childless, looks at her friend “as if she had passed over a chasm into another land”. Natalie, despite outward appearances, struggles with her relationship and parenthood and with fitting in her own identity and desires with these things.
But Smith is ultimately interested in how humans connect. While the friendship is not uncomplicated, she reminds us periodically of what Natalie and Leah share: silly, giggling exchanges about sex, unspoken moments of solidarity during tough times – a look, a hand-squeeze. Smith’s essential optimism runs through the book, and although it does deal with the darker side of urban life – stabbings, drugs, people who have fallen through the cracks – she never portrays these things as anything other than sad and avoidable. She believes that people are and deserve better.
There is the slight problem of Felix’s section, which, on its own, is well written and compelling, but, as part of the whole, feels detached and fragmentary. Leah and Natalie are great characters and their story was interesting enough to fill the whole book. I also had reservations about certain stylistic devices: some of the stream-of-consciousness lists don’t quite work, and I wasn’t entirely sure why Natalie’s section is told in numbered fragments. But these things never seriously got in the way and Smith’s writing glides along elegantly. For its nuanced, humane take on friendship and the city, NW is definitely worth a read.