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Zadie Smith: NW

In her first novel for seven years, Zadie Smith is back to Willesden. However, the style is different – owing much to both Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. And, in case, we don’t get the Joyce connection, Devon, half-brother of Felix, one of the main characters, is released from prison on 16 June, i.e. Bloomsday. This novel is told in a more or less stream of consciousness mixed with dialogue style, with little description, except through the eyes of the characters. As the title indicates, it is set in North West London, specifically the Willesden/Kilburn area. Much of the focus is on two old friends, Leah Hanwell and Natalie Blake. Leah is a white woman of Irish origin, married to Michel, a francophone black African. Leah works for a community charity while Michel is a hairdresser who wants to be an investor. Michel wants children. Leah is less enthusiastic and, as she gets pregnant during the book, this becomes something of an issue. Natalie (who used to be Keisha) is a successful black barrister, doing very well in her career. The other main character is Felix, a man who has done a bit of everything, risen up and then knocked himself down with drink and drugs. He is now rising up again, both in terms of making a living but also becoming the decent sort of drug-free person he feels that he should be.

Of course we see the other side. The three main characters have all attained or are striving for middle class respectability. At the beginning of the book, Leah will be visited in her council flat by Shar. Shar apparently went to school with Leah (Leah does not really remember her) and needs to get urgently to the Middlesex Hospital to visit her mother but has no money. Leah ‘lends’ her thirty pounds but it is, of course, a scam. Leah will see her again and try and pursue her for the money but she realises that Shar is something of a victim and tries to help her. Nathan Bogle (the one character to connect Felix, Natalie and Leah – Leah and Natalie never meet Felix) was a very attractive young man, whom Leah had a crush on, but was expelled from school. Now he has the shakes, a scar on his face and has definitely gone downhill with his drug addiction.

Inevitably, relationships are something of an issue. Leah does not want children, while Michel does. Michel wants to invest their money in day trading. Leah is naturally somewhat apprehensive. Felix has a new partner, Grace, with whom he gets on well, but cannot resist the temptation of visiting his former girlfriend, Annie, an agoraphobic woman who lives in a house used mainly by prostitutes and who is flat broke. Natalie marries Francesco (Frank) de Angelis, the most beautiful man she had ever seen, though ends up worrying about his privileged boarding school background and then looking for quick sex everywhere. But relationship problems are all part of the picture Smith paints of individuals who are not entirely sure of where they are and where they are going. Is Leah happy staying more or less where she has been all her life and is Natalie happy with having moved up in the world?

Smith’s skill here as in her earlier work is her brilliance in knowing her characters, their speech and behaviour, their culture and attitudes. The stream of consciousness could be off-putting and may well be for some but it particularly works in this novel as it does fit her characters and their actions. While not of the quality of White Teeth, this is still an excellent novel.

Publishing history

First published in 2012 by Hamish Hamilton