NW takes its name from the postcode of the North-West area of London in which the novel is set. It is in this setting that Smith’s fourth novel opens up into a challenging, detail-rich read. With its experimental form, and multiple perspectives, Smith paints a picture of an exhausting London and its broken people.
We see the fictional estate of Caldwell from the eyes of Keisha (who later renames herself Natalie), Leah and Felix, with the narrative moving backward and forward through time, over the course of their lives. Smith layers the mundane-nature of these people’s existence with racial themes as well as the influence of communities and expectations.
The novel’s innovative form was often challenging, particularly if I was picking it up after a break of a night or two. I found myself questioning ‘who is this character?’, and although I appreciated the sentiment of Keisha’s name change to ‘Natalie’ – it certainly threw me through a loop.
The high point of NW was certainly the development of the friendship between Keisha/Natalie and Leah. Rich in detail and resonating easily in any reader with a handful of close-knit female friends, it is with this element that Smith gives us something to relate to. The friendship spans from childhood to womanhood and immerses us in the twists and turns of parental influence, new relationships, careers and going across the dreaded line of ‘real’ adulthood into marriage and motherhood (or sometimes, lack of it).
I particularly enjoyed the secrets and questions only I, as a reader, was let in on – those questions that the characters only dared to ask themselves:
Sometimes bitterness makes a grab for Leah. Pulls her down, holds her. What was the point of it all? Three years of useless study. Out of pocket, out of her depth.”
As a feminist, I also enjoyed the attention to the ‘life choices’ some of the female characters battled with. For example, Leah doesn’t want children, but she’s ashamed to admit it to her husband and so takes the pill in secret. For once, a novel didn’t just assume that all women are the same when it comes to wanting a family, and it touched upon the pressures and expectations we face as we grow older.
Like many other multiple perspective novels, I expected these narrative threads to be tied together towards the end of the novel… This didn’t exactly happen, or if it did – it didn’t work. It wasn’t satisfying, and not in an anticlimactic-artistic way; it just fell flat. It all felt a bit random – perhaps that was the idea, but if it was, I found myself not caring.
While the novel is rife with passion and raw observations of urban life, a lot of these gems were lost on me due to the unusual structure. A lot of the time I felt confused and frustrated, wondering who was who, and questioning if I had missed a chapter. Despite the fact that I could appreciate Smith’s brilliant portrayal of urban struggle, reading NW felt like a struggle in itself at times.