NW, Zadie Smith


The opportunity to read a novel like NW is what makes it worth reading all the duds, or the ones you weren’t suited to, the ones everyone else adored but the timing wasn’t right for you, or the ones you gave weeks up to but ultimately couldn’t finish.

NW is about friendship, race and growing up. Two girls in northwest London, Leah and Natalie get a section each to tell us their very different lives. Leah has a very fanciable husband, but their relationship is passive, and though bright and with high ideals, she hasn’t got very far from Willesden in the 20 years since school ended.

Natalie is the brightest young black barrister you’ll meet. While her friends live in Notting Hill, she can’t quite leave the estate both girls grew up on, and lives in a big house just outside. These estates, also home to Nathan, the school-heartthrob-turned-smackhead, and Felix, a young guy trying to catch a break, appear in the story as major veins for every character. The world, for most people growing up in these places, Smith says, is so small that whether you come from one building or another determines many things. You can’t escape your past.

The detailed observations of this friendship between two women is beautiful and tragic: their closeness, inevitable fallings out, the things they want and can’t have, and have and don’t want. The fatalistic way they approach their relationships and life choices is scary at times. Yet it’s the dialogue and the lyricism of Smith’s writing that make NW such a mesmerising read. At times she slips into some points of high modernism, every bit the spoken word poet, at others she’s churning out a tall tale with as much energy as a teller down the bingo.

I read this book for my book club, and five out of the six of us admitted we hadn’t read any Zadie Smith before – or we’d read only White Teeth – because she seemed a bit ‘done’. Wasn’t everyone reading her? Wasn’t she over? Even though we loved listening to her and thought her smart, wise and interesting, we basically thought she was too popular. We were too interesting to read her. HA. How wrong we were. I am so ashamed. It’s a long book, but I’d read it again, and again. I found Swing Time on holiday a few weeks later, and devoured that. Go Zadie! I want to climb and tree with my loudspeaker and tell everyone about her. But they already know.