Zadie Smith’s NW is about different people living in Northeast London who are connected through time and environment. NW is a modern masterpiece. Smith easily weaves pop culture and classic literary references into tableaus that eventually all connect. Her novel includes narrative, lists, stream of consciousness, and vignettes. She writes about interracial friendship, interracial marriage, interclass marriage and within these different relationships she explores perception versus actuality. In NW Smith questions what is authentic and what authentic means to each individual.
170. In drag
Daughter drag. Sister drag. Mother drag. Wife drag. Court drag. Rich drag. Poor drag. British drag. Jamaican drag. Each required a different wardrobe. But when considering these carious attitudes she struggled to think what would be the most authentic, or perhaps the least inauthentic. (333)
Keisha and her best friend Leah grew up in Northwest London and attended the same high school. Keisha is black, changed her name to Natalie, became a lawyer for a non-profit (but transferred to the private sector), and married a black man who attended the same law school she did. Leah is white, does administrative work at a non-profit, and married a black hairstylist from France. The two women lived in the same neighborhood and attended the same schools in their childhood. Both women focus on who they are and who they are perceived to be. And each of them feel like a fraud. Natalie feels guilt over her financially successful career and how far she’s grown from her family. Leah does not want to move forward with her life; she thinks others are judging her for not having a baby. Both perceive the other one to be happily married. Both of them are unhappy in their own way in their marriages.
NW is carefully curated to demonstrate the outsider in different environments. This sense of being an outsider is a precursor to feeling inauthentic. Natalie and her college boyfriend read Albert Camus and pronounce the T and S, “not knowing any better” (226). They are reading the right writers and yet they cannot properly pronounce Camus’ name. Why? Because they are entering a world they were not born into. As a woman, Keisha Blake is hoping to “charm her way through the front door. [Her boyfriend] intended to slip through the back, unnoticed.” (233) Even as they try to enter the same place, they each try a different route based on their gender. Later on, a black female lawyer warns Natalie that she cannot be her true self. She cannot show true emotions because they are entering someone else’s world, one where they are the outsiders:
Then I realized the following: when some floppy-haired chap from Surrey stands before these judges, all his passionate arguements read as “pure advocacy.” He and the Judge recognize each other. They are understood by each other. Very likely went to the same school. But Whaley’s passion, or mine, or yours, reads as ‘agression.’ To the judge. this is his house and you are an interloper within it. And let me tell you, with a woman it’s worse: ‘Agressive hysteria.’ The first lesson is: turn yourself down. One notch. Two. Because this is not neutral. . . . This is never neutral. (295)
Since Natalie left North London and went to school and changed her name, the perception is that she believes she is too good for her family. She has not stayed true to her neighborhood or her family. Her sister, who lives with their mother and has three children from different men and who collects welfare makes Natalie feel inadequate. When Natalie offers to help them move into a larger home, her family accuses her of putting on airs.
We see multiple worlds through perspectives of different social classes and races. But this book isn’t meant to be didactic. It’s not about comparing and contrasting. It’s about the search for meaning. What is authentic? What is an authentic marriage? What is an authentic relationship? What is an authentic life? NW has many more characters and perspectives than Natalie and Leah. This book is magnificently melodic. It feels so familiar from the first paragraph, almost like stepping into another room of your home that you didn’t realize existed. Zadie Smith has crafted a masterpiece which revolves around the neighborhood of North London and what it means to get out.
Zadie Smith, NW. New York City: Penguin Books, 2012.