Zadie Smith’s NW is the perfect example of an instant modern classic; prose with the flair and flow of poetry that is indisputably good. One of those books that acutely reminded me why 18-year-old-me chose literature over law. Smith effortlessly locates the reader in North West London where her characters await, ready for you to observe every nuance of their lives.
The book is hardly a love letter to London but that didn’t stop me from reading it as such. It’s so hard to find an author who is capable of capturing the pace, diversity and feel of London, something Smith accomplishes with ease. Pinpointing the melting pot of London, where people are above all else Londoners, but constantly subject to the performativity that makes this so.
The title is surprisingly duplicitous: yes, the novel is about North West London (Barnet, specifically) but also about how lives and socioeconomic status often vary wildly from those just a few streets over. That the reality of ‘living well’ in London means always living reasonably close to those who merely survive. Kiesha Nathalie and Leah are two old friends with similar backgrounds who have ended up living drastically different lives, largely due to disparities in income and choice of partner. The book touches on the uncomfortable distance this creates in their friendship. However, both women are miles away from their ex-classmate, Nathan Bogle. Who, although they all went to school together, has become the kind of person both women would cross the street to avoid.
It’s an expertly executed psychological study into the kind of struggles ordinary people so often face. There seems to be a focus on those faced by Nathalie and Leah, through whom the reader experiences the pressures of womanhood and race, but there is a lesser focus on the expectations of masculinity as well.
Fundamentally, this study of people works as a lesson to its readers. Reminding us that nobody’s life is exactly how it appears and that no one is perfect. Something that, in this time of online self-promotion, is wholly important to remember. A great read.