Search form

London speaks in Zadie Smith’s new novel

London speaks in Zadie Smith’s new novel

130118 12b
Zadie Smith’s NW captures the many voices of London’s quintessential North West.

Each character in Zadie Smith’s vivid new novel NW has you living their past and present with their every draw of breath. A master of dialogue, Smith infuses her ebullient, witty prose with North West London’s tapestry of voices: it’s fast-paced enough to be an unputdownable read, but so rich you almost want to slow down and savour the evocative riffs exchanged between the locals.

In her first novel, the joyously entertaining White Teeth, Smith employed a large cast to take the reader though the friendships, mixed race marriages and class barriers of the multicultural North West.

NW focuses on four 30-something characters, all natives of Caldwell, a gritty council estate that they have moved both up and away from - with varying degrees of success.

The novel starts with former partier Leah Hanwell, whose encounter with a drug addict scammer – a former school mate - throws a cog in her seemingly stable place in the world and in her relationships.

Leah’s best friend from childhood, corporate lawyer Natalie, has an enviable life but as the estate-raised daughter of Jamaican immigrants, has had to fully re-create herself to move up in the world – and she is disconnected emotionally.

Both women are having types of life crises, but the drama is deftly woven into a climactic narrative of everyday life.

To explain the origins of each character’s inner turmoil, Smith casually dips and dives into episodes from the past, with glimpses both humorous and cutting of the worlds they inhabit.

Far more experimental than her previous novels, each character’s chapter is written in a different style to the previous. Natalie’s chapter bounds along in 188 micro chapters, some seemingly minor, others stories in themselves. While Leah’s part, like the character herself, is freer-flowing and associative, even incorporating shape poetry into the text.

The most moving chapter of the four interconnected tales is Felix Cooper’s. Out of all the possible outcomes for Caldwell’s former children, Felix has survived the worst and become a man with purpose and ambition. His wonderfully revealing conversations with two upper-class white Londoners (a hipster and a former lover) are highlights in Smith’s prose.

The portrayal of Nathan, the fourth Caldwell character who, unlike Felix, has fallen through the cracks never to return, is not given as many words or as much insight as Leah, Natalie and Felix, but is still sketched with brilliant speed and humour, as are a dozen other peripheral personalities, who float throughout the tragi-comedy of NW like voices in the street.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rosa Ellen at [email protected]
Follow Rosa on twitter at: @rosaellen


  • Breaking: PM says prominent human rights NGO ‘must close’

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has instructed the Interior Ministry to investigate the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) and potentially close it “because they follow foreigners”, appearing to link the rights group to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party's purported “revolution”. The CNRP - the

  • Rainsy and Sokha ‘would already be dead’: PM

    Prime Minister Hun Sen on Sunday appeared to suggest he would have assassinated opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha had he known they were promising to “organise a new government” in the aftermath of the disputed 2013 national elections. In a clip from his speech

  • Massive ceremony at Angkor Wat will show ‘Cambodia not in anarchy’: PM

    Government officials, thousands of monks and Prime Minister Hun Sen himself will hold a massive prayer ceremony at Angkor Wat in early December to highlight the Kingdom’s continuing “peace, independence and political stability”, a spectacle observers said was designed to disguise the deterioration of

  • PM tells workers CNRP is to blame for any sanctions

    In a speech to workers yesterday, Prime Minister Hun Sen pinned the blame for any damage inflicted on Cambodia’s garment industry by potential economic sanctions squarely on the opposition party. “You must remember clearly that if the purchase orders are reduced, it is all