I wanted to read this book before watching the TV adaptation that was broadcast this week on the BBC. Also, it seemed fitting to catch up in the week that Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time, is published. I have yet to catch up with the TV version, but here are my thoughts on the source novel.
NW follows four Londoners – Leah, Natalie (previously known as Keisha), Felix and Nathan. They have all grown up on the same council estate in northwest London, and the novel looks at how they have moved on in their different ways. Mostly though, this is a story of the friendship between Leah and Natalie. Now in their thirties, both are married, Natalie with kids and Leah trying to be without. While Natalie has confounded racial stereotypes and become a successful barrister, Leah has found herself stuck in a dead end job where she is in the minority as a white woman amongst a mainly black office.
-Not relevant? What do you mean? How could you tell me that whole story and not mention the headscarf?
Natalie laughs. Frank laughs. Michel laughs hardest. Slightly drunk. Not only on the Prosecco in his hand. On the grandeur of this Victorian house, the length of the garden, that he should know a barrister and a banker, that he should find funny the things they find funny. The children wheel manically round the garden, laughing because everyone else is. Leah looks down at Olive and strokes her ardently, until the dog is discomfited and slinks away. She looks up at her best friend, Natalie Blake, and hates her.
The novel follows a non traditional structure. The above is taken from the first section which concentrates on Leah in the novel’s present day. We then move to a heartbreaking section on Felix (my favourite part of the novel) before the most experimental section: 185 numbered snapshots following mainly Keisha/Natalie from childhood up until the moment we meet her as a married woman with two children. The last part of the book then ties up the sections, not neatly, but to bring the four characters together. A lot is left unanswered, especially in terms of the two women’s marriages which are both left in a precarious position.
This is a challenging novel in terms of the structure of it, and although Felix’s section has real urgency and tension, this is not a plot driven book. A huge portion is backstory, getting up to the point that we’ve already read, and I found that this was where my attention began to wander, reading it in dribs and drabs where I had read the previous 169 pages in almost one sitting. Smith is brilliant in her use of language. Her dialogue is so real that you hear the characters as you read. Technically, this is a great book, one that teaches us about life and the flaws within us all, regardless of wealth or background, but for me it did not touch my heart quite enough.