I must declare my position on Zadie Smith. I thought On Beauty was magnificent. It ranks among the contemporary novels that I most wish I had written; it has never taken its place in my rigorously alphabetised fiction shelves because it lives, along with only a dozen or so others, in permanent circulation on my bedside table. And what I wanted next from Smith — like, I imagine, many of her admirers — was that elusive ideal: more of the same, yet different. It is as unreasonable a demand as the wish for one’s children to stay small; writers must grow and evolve and we, their readers, must allow them to. Nonetheless, this book may come as a surprise to those who have been waiting for it.
For it has been seven years, during which Smith has become a tenured professor at NYU. Her fourth novel, NW, marks a substantial and deliberate shift in her fiction. If E.M. Forster stood behind On Beauty like a benevolent Edwardian father, NW has had the volatile, modernist mothering of Virginia Woolf, and the resulting prose is restless and nervy, a narrative as disjointed as the lives it describes. Leah, Keisha, Felix and Nathan were raised in Caldwell, a fictional north London council estate, and each is battling different demons, struggling to make a life beyond the tower blocks of their childhood. Set predominantly over the high summer weekend of the Notting Hill Carnival, it is a portrait of a city. It’s a fierce, angry novel. It is not what I expected. But it’s very good.
Leah Hanwell is still living within sight of Caldwell, working to distribute charity funds in a dismal office where “the nation’s bad bets morph into a semblance of the collective good: after-school play groups, translation services, garden clearance for the elderly, quilting for prisoners”. Her husband Michel is from Marseilles, a hairdresser who spends his evenings online trading with her modest inheritance in a desperate attempt to alter their circumstances:
We’re all just trying to take that next, that next, next, step. Climbing that ladder. Brent Housing Partnership. I don’t want to have this written on the front of a place where I am living. I walk past it and I feel like oof — it’s humiliating to me . . . this tree is not my tree! We scattered your father round this tree we don’t own even.
But stasis is precisely what Leah craves. She doesn’t share his aspirations, least of all the baby that he longs for and that everyone else has come to expect. She has just discovered that she’s pregnant when a girl appears on her doorstep asking for money, a chance encounter leading to other chance encounters that weave the disparate strands of the novel into its whole.
Leah’s best friend from Caldwell is Keisha Blake, whose God-fearing Caribbean family have high aspirations for her — “a one-year Business Administration course at “Coles Academy”, really just a corridor of office space above the old Woolworths on the Kilburn High Road. A racket, an uncredited institution, taught by some Nairobi acquaintance of Pastor Akinwande, and requiring no move away from home”. Where Leah wants nothing whatsoever to change, Keisha alters everything, fighting her way into Bristol University where she renames herself Natalie, slips free of her earnest, tedious Caldwell boyfriend and eventually becomes a barrister, along the way acquiring a banker husband, two perfect children and a nostalgie de la boue so overwhelming that it threatens to destroy everything else.
No one has it easy here but despite their trials, the women fare substantially better than the men. Leah and Natalie’s former classmate, Nathan, has fallen almost as far as there is to go; Felix Cooper, sunny and self-deluding and buoyed by the love of a strong woman, will not have the good fortune his first name promises. If the refracted narrative takes a bit of work at the beginning, Smith’s comedy and dialogue are both pitch-perfect, the latter encompassing a virtuosic range from coked-up fallen aristocrat to Nathan’s pure north London slang:
Walking down Kilburn High Road Natalie Blake had a strong desire to slip into the lives of other people. It was hard to see how this desire could be practicably satisfied or what, if anything, it really meant. “Slip into” is an imprecise thought. Follow the Somali kid home? Sit with the old Russian lady at the bus stop outside Poundland? Join the Ukrainian gangster at his table in the cake shop? A local tip: the bus stop outside Kilburn’s Poundland is the site of many of the more engaging conversations to be heard in the city of London. You’re welcome.
Here, Willesden is a vivid, brutal world in miniature, drawing the population of our peripheral vision into focus; opening up unimaginable other lives.