NW is a meta-exploration/experiment of time and identity. Zadie Smith plays with chronology, plot structure, and syntax. All of these elements are used to paint the vibrant NorthWest London town, home to Leah Hanwell, Natalie Blake (Keisha Blake), and Nathan Bogle. All come from the same place and the same socioeconomic background, but experience three different trajectories.
What’s similar about these three is loss of identity. Each is grappling with the loss of self and trying to reconstruct an identity from the tools they’ve received.
Leah and Natalie battle the time restrictions placed on women and how to respond to their ever-so-loudly ticking biological clocks.
Nathan is dealing with the loss of who he was or who he was perceived to be.
Amongst these trials is tragedy: from murder to theft, Smith illustrates the devaluation of a place already not highly esteemed. The town is as much a character as anyone else; it serves as a force that continues to draw in even those who’ve worked hard to get out. Smith explores how hometowns shape, cultivate, and store our history–clues that might help mend gaps between who we think we are and who we’ve become.
“We all get what we deserve,” explains Natasha Blake, whose identity crisis extends so deep that she changes her name.
Time and chronology are so central to the tale that they become characters along with the town. Smith also plays with this idea of not being able to escape neither right nor left, but being stuck and forced to face whatever it is approaching or attempting to be avoided. This claustrophobia results in drastic decisions made by each character in attempts to escape.
There’s something cinematic about Zadie Smith’s latest novel NW. Perhaps it is the structure: often breaking into fragmented poetic forms of dialogue. Perhaps it is the vivid description of a town riddled with poverty, multiculturalism, and a desperation to either get out, to remain, or to survive. I’m still not sure. I’m still not sure about a lot of things concerning this novel including whether I like it or not. It is certainly a book that deserves a re-read and there is a lot of careful connections made and blatant themes and motifs that all but smack you in the face at every page.
In true Zadie style, there is no ending or tying up of things; we are simply given a vignette of these people’s lives. While no one likes carefully tidied up endings, I was left with a lot of questions.
But, nevertheless, Zadie is a powerful story teller who will pull you in with her humor, her truth, her complexity.