Book Review – NW by Zadie Smith
Title – NW
Genre – Literary Fiction
Author – Zadie Smith
Published – 2012
Enjoyment rating – 9/10
* * *
This novel is a tour de force. It’s only a little over 300 pages long, but it took me a full week to complete even though I was reading several hours every day. I wanted to savour Zadie Smith’s writing, which had me hooked from the very first page.
The novel has two principal characters, Leah and Keisha/Natalie. By the end of the first page, Zadie Smith hasn’t told us this; all we know is that one of them has red hair, and a husband, Michel, whose politics differ from hers. What we have instead is dazzling description, a reference to Shakespeare, philosophy, politics and a terrible pun.
If the novel is about anything, it’s about the nature of friendship. Or the nature of love. Or the futility of life. Or a hymn to the tight-knit communities of London villages. Or a dissection of human motivations, in particular the urge to project a consistent narrative about one’s life. Or all of the above.
It is carefully constructed; very carefully indeed. One of the climactic events is foreshadowed at least twice, and yet it’s still a shocking surprise when it comes.
The principal characters are Leah Hanwell, daughter of Irish immigrants and her best friend Keisha who is BAME. We learn of their childhood friendship, and how it evolved from a chance dramatic event. We read how they approach life, Keisha even going so far as to change her name to Natalie to achieve her goal and become a highly paid lawyer. We see how their life-choices take them into quite different social worlds, and yet they retain their childhood friendship.
Men, their thoughts and needs, are not prominent; for example, Natalie’s husband, Frank, is more noticeable by his absences than by his presence. Even Leah’s husband Michel, who is written fairly sympathetically, is excluded from crucial actions by Leah, who decides and acts unilaterally.
The novel portrays men’s principal characteristic as desire for sex and respect. And the novel suggests an answer as to why respect is so important to the men of this community; it is because society, backed by the Establishment, doesn’t show them any. There is a very telling scene where a young man is smoking in a children’s play park. The women, with Natalie prominent, order him to stop; they overwhelm him with their criticism. It is no coincidence that Natalie is a lawyer – here, she symbolises the weight of the Establishment.
But it’s the two women and the constancy of their friendship that is the heart of this novel. Their affection isn’t romanticised; they argue, criticise, even steal, and it’s clear that in many ways they’re very different. And yet the bond is there, unbroken. The novel closes with Leah and Natalie doing something that is the adult equivalent of how they behaved together as teenagers, showing that despite the stress on their friendship, it remains solid.
I have to say, this novel enthralled me. It is so well written, and so thought provoking I’ve returned to it again and again.