'Imagination will take you everywhere'
“I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me.”
So begins Zadie Smith’s novel, NW. Unbeknown to the reader, this statement perfectly encapsulates the entire narrative. It suggests the unprecedented sense of freedom that comes with the modern myth; everyone is born equal, everyone has the same opportunities, everyone can make their life how they please. But the 21st century is a cruel place to live, of which Smith skilfully demonstrates in her engrossing and truthful portrayal of life in north-west London.
A rough council estate is the setting. The community is a microcosm of the world, with people from all walks of life thrown together; ‘From St Kitts, Trinidad, Barbados, Grenada, Jamaica, India, Pakistan’, most of which are working class. Four of its previous inhabitants try to physically and mentally distance themselves from their upbringing – trying to convince themselves that they are not defined by their race, class, family and wealth. They are the ones that dictate their own lives. Yet somehow the boundaries they build to block these notions, is exactly what inhibits them from embracing the freedom and opportunities they yearn.
I arrived slightly sceptical at the commencement of this literary journey; I had never read anything like this before. Smith’s writing style is different – the sort an English teacher would say is wrong. Abrupt, harsh, disjointed and brutal. I felt intimidated. And yet as the story jolted alive, I could suddenly hear the voices of the characters – their accents, their slang, and ultimately, their personalities. ‘She knows the way people speak around here, that fuckin, around here, is only a rhythm in a sentence.’ ‘Eggzak’ly.’ The dialogue tumbles out from the pages; blunt and immediate. Smith even deploys innovative changes to the traditional format to better evoke the situation; a loud office discussion sees words flying across the page in a heated free-for-all; italics, capitals, brackets, colloquialisms, all of which express the idiosyncrasy of the people in this multifaceted community. I had to concentrate hard to follow, then I realised that Smith doesn’t want the reader to simply ‘follow’, she wants them to feel, imagine, picture the scene, the atmosphere, the smell, the noise. This is how the characters come to life.
The main character which permeates through every sentence is the capital itself. London is a phenomenon in its own right; it breathes, it sweats, it feels the heart-ache and the pain, it senses the divisions, the discrimination, it witnesses murder. It is home to this diverse cacophony of human beings, all of which are trying to make a decent living. This novel is an astute social commentary. In particular Smith expertly depicts the rugged path of female friendships. Leah Hanwell and Natalie Blake are 30-something women who have been best friends since childhood, now on the cusp of settling down, their worlds are seemingly juxtaposed. One worked hard, became a lawyer, married into money and had two children; the other didn’t work quite so hard, has a job working for the council, married for love, but is scared of the future ‘Why must love ‘move forward’?’ ‘She had believed they would be naked in these sheets forever’. Both women aren’t satisfied with how their lives have turned out. This simple yet frank depiction feels increasingly relevant in this day-and-age when women ‘having-it-all’ is constantly presented as the norm. Inevitably the lives that they so meticulously built up rapidly begin to crumble – one descends into drugs and adultery, the other fades into a depressive trance-like state. Thus reflecting the modern-day dilemma that women face when self-judgement and anxiety take grip; a result of striving for that unattainable perfect lifestyle.
In the end, the two women realise that they should just accept who they are and where they are from. Instead of wearing their upbringing as a badge of shame, they should embrace the fact that they’ve prospered, but not forget how far they’ve come. A sobering and pertinent lesson for us all.
The narrative offered me an insight into the gritty, rough and grim reality of inner-city life – uncensored, unbeautified, but true. Moreover, I discovered the thread that binds this community together; hidden and hard to find, yet strong – ‘Leah is faithful in her allegiance to this two-mile square of the city as other people are to their families’. Smith captures how modern humans interact with one another, in a way that makes her an impeccable raconteur of the complex ways of the world. Like David Attenborough examining the behaviour of Homo sapiens, or a present-day Dickens describing a stereotypical London street-scene. Smith rises above the city; an all-seeing deity who conveys the thoughts of a culture and a generation.
Originally published on ALT Magazine.