British author Zadie Smith’s tragicomic novel NW (Penguin Press, 2012), nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2013, presents the interconnected story of several protagonists living in contemporary London. The friendship of Leah Hanwell and Keisha (later Natalie) Blake is central to the narrative. As they grow from childhood, through adolescence, and adulthood, the two are repeatedly challenged in their attempts to navigate issues of social class, race, gender, education, career aspirations, and family life. Alongside their story, NW provides a glimpse into the life of Felix Cooper, who is struggling but determined to leave behind a life of addiction and self-destructive behavior. Though their identities and concerns may differ, the characters are united by their search for an authentic sense of self. The title of the novel refers to the postal code for the northwest region of the city, where all the characters live, and the geography of London shapes the lives and behavior of the characters as they attempt to define themselves.
The novel’s first part, “Visitation,” centers on Leah’s story. Born into a middle-class family of Irish immigrants, Leah enjoys a stable childhood in the Caldwell section of northwest London. She becomes best friends with Keisha at a young age, though the two develop distinct personalities and life trajectories. Leah marries a French Algerian immigrant, Michel. He is driven to climb the socio-economic ladder and start a family, while Leah becomes listless, secretly has an abortion, and covertly takes birth control. After a drug addict, Shar, cons her into giving her money, Leah becomes obsessed with tracking down and helping Shar, and she succumbs to a nervous breakdown.
Get access to this full Study Guide and much more!
The second part, “Guest,” shifts to the story of Felix, who also grows up in Caldwell. Instead of pursuing an education and steady career like Leah and Natalie, he struggles with drug addiction for years. Eventually, he falls in love with Grace, who encourages him to turn his life around. He gets sober, breaks ties with his past, and focuses on improvement. Just as he reaches this turning point, however, he is mugged and killed by two men after a senseless argument on a train. The other principal characters of the novel learn about this murder via the news.
“Host,” NW’s third part, dives deeper into the world of Keisha. Keisha is the daughter of working-class Jamaican immigrants, and her roots are humbler than Leah’s. Nevertheless, she excels academically, transforms herself, and changes her name to Natalie in college. Along the way, she meets (then marries) a higher-class Italian immigrant, Francesco (Frank) De Angelis. Natalie becomes a successful lawyer and has two children. Despite her successes, Natalie remains unfulfilled and begins pursuing casual sex with strangers. When Frank discovers her secret life, their marriage, and Natalie’s world, seem on the brink of collapse.
The SuperSummary difference
In the fourth part, “Crossing,” a distraught Natalie flees home to wander the streets of Caldwell. She runs into one of her old schoolmates, Nathan Bogle, who is now a drug dealer and possible pimp. On the run himself, Nathan talks with Natalie about their past and present struggles. After contemplating suicide on a bridge, Natalie leaves Nathan behind and returns home. In the final part, also called “Visitation,” Natalie and Frank attempt to navigate a marriage on the rocks. A frantic Michel, having discovered Leah’s hidden birth control, calls Natalie for help, and Natalie visits her friend’s home. She talks Leah out of her nervous breakdown. In the aftermath, they realize that Felix’s murderer might be Nathan, and they tip off the police.
The novel moves between first- and third-person perspectives and features flashbacks and side steps that complicate and enrich the narrative. NW is also experimental in style, including lists, records of instant message chats, stream-of-consciousness passages, and map directions as well as narrative. In resisting a straightforward plot, NW instead focuses on its characters’ attempts to define themselves in the face of life events, both mundane and extreme. Set against the backdrop of diverse, complex London, NW provides a detailed impression of the chaos, confusion, and anxieties of modern urban existence.
By Zadie Smith