Life in the city is rarely easy. It’s stressful, it’s expensive, it’s crowded, and it has the ability to wear a person down. The four central characters in Zadie Smith’s new novel NW all live in the same neighborhood to the northwest of downtown London, a neighborhood with a large low-income, immigrant population. The novel is divided into four sections, each section more or less focused on one character, but as is often the case with novels of this sort, there is significant overlap in the stories of these four people, two of which are best friends.
Formally, NW is a very unique novel—structurally and even visually. In the first section, quotation punctuation is eschewed entirely. In the third section, which comprises the largest percentage of the novel, the story is told over 185 numbered vignettes that are rarely longer than a paragraph or two. In a New Yorker interview, Smith credits this partially to “the simple time restraint of having a kid. Four hours a day is as much as I had.” There are also brief sections throughout the novel of poetic verse that seem to reflect stream of consciousness from the characters.
The first section focuses on Leah Hanwell, a social worker married to a French hair stylist, struggling with the thought of having children, but married to a man who wants them before they are too old. The second (and most compelling) section deals with Felix Cooper, a former drug addict who has moved on from broken relationships and his addictions to strive for something better. The third, which is comprised of the vignettes, takes us from childhood to the late 30s of Natalie (Keisha) Blake, a successful lawyer, mother of two young children, wife of a wealthy man, and best friend of Leah Hanwell. The final, short section attempts to bring the first three sections together via Nathan, an addict and pimp with whom three grew up.
All four of these people are at various stages of battle with the city of London and themselves. Felix, who struggled to keep his life together at a young age, has battled back in his late 30s. In a conversation with a former lover he yearns for the “Next level. People can spend their whole lives just dwelling. I done that. Now it’s time for the next level. I’m moving up in the game.” He is surrounded by people in his life that tell him he should be angry or depressed given the rough hand he was dealt, but he is having none of it. This same former lover tells him, “Not everyone wants this conventional little life you’re rowing your boat toward. I like my river of fire. And when it’s time for me to go I fully intend to roll off my one-person dinghy in to he flames and be consumed.” Yet in spite of all of this, he remains positive.
For Leah and Natalie (who is known as Keisha until she goes to college where she changes her name), despite living less privileged childhoods, they come from relatively stable homes, receive good educations, live socially conscious lives, and fall in love with men who love them back. But as they grow older, and inch closer to the goals they once strove for, things begin to regress. The narrator of the final section observes, “There is a connection between boredom and the desire for some chaos. Despite many disguises and bluffs perhaps [Natalie] had never stopped wanting chaos.” Both women are driven by a collection of tragic circumstances and insecurities to do terrible things that they keep secret from their husbands; and, in the end, they find themselves disconnected, yet unable to address their problems. The narratives in both sections build and build, and the reader hopes that the inevitable will somehow be avoided.
The book is thrilling to read, thanks mostly to Smith’s incredible prose and dialogue. Despite never having been to London, the book made me feel the city through the characters unique slang, the vivid descriptions of landscapes and geography, and the almost palpable racial and social tension that pervades almost every scene. Smith understands relationships so well and is especially great at getting into the heads of married people. For example, after a brief argument between Natalie and her husband Frank, “He left the room silently, and it was not quite clear whether it was the beginning of a row or not. Probably he would decide later, depending on whether there was a practical advantage to be had in discord.”
Two other great successes of NW are worth mentioning. First is the way Smith subtly depicts an urban neighborhood in the process of gentrification. For example, a scene when Natalie and her husband are out to eat with friends: “They were all four of them providing a service for the rest of the people in the cafe, simply by being here. They were the ‘local vibrancy’ to which the estate agents referred.” The reader is never beaten over the head with it, but small scenes like this make it impossible to ignore. The other great success is a more understated one, but so difficult to pull off (as evidenced in this great article from The Millions). The characters in NW use technology. This shouldn’t be so unusual in a novel, considering the role technology plays in our daily lives, but at one point Smith writes the simple sentence “Natalie googled.” It was organic, and was the exact thing anybody would do in 2012 given the circumstances. Cell phones, computers and the internet play a large role in this novel and Smith should be applauded for pulling it off without it ever seeming out of place.
While religion doesn’t occupy a large percentage of the novel’s content, if one reads NW with the gospel in mind, it is impossible to ignore the role of faith in this story. Both Natalie and Leah are raised in the Church, but as they grow older it becomes a strain to stay committed. Natalie, who has lived a mostly chaste life up until college, is upset to find that “the students were tired of things Keisha had never heard of, and horrified by the only thing she knew well: the Bible.” It doesn’t take long before “she lost god so smoothly and painlessly she had to wonder what she’d ever meant by the word. She found politics and literature, music, cinema. ‘Found’ is not the right word. She put her faith in these things…”
This is a great temptation for any Christian who lives in the city. The reason many people gravitate towards urban centers is that there is so much to see, do, and experience. However, these things demand a great deal of our time, our thought, and our affection. It is easy to end up in a place where these man-made things take over as our primary reason to embrace the world, and it rarely takes long for such things to let us down. Whether confidence is put in one’s embracing of the city’s culture, or even one’s own accomplishment in the city landscape, it is never enough to fulfill us, as evidenced by the brokenness we see in every corner of the city, no matter a given neighborhood’s socioeconomic standing.
Yet what the Gospel provides us is a foundation upon which to engage the city, and the world more broadly, with a sense of purpose and stability. Rather than letting the cultural pillars of the urban experience become an end unto themselves, when we are equipped with the gospel, they become something for us to embrace, to wrestle with, to be challenged by and to enjoy. We are not forced to ask of them something they are not capable of giving us: security in a broken and oppressive world, and they never act as controllers in our lives. Instead, they improve our faith by extricating it from the protective walls of the church and letting it exist and participate in the world that Christ came to reconcile unto himself. As we see in these characters’ lives, the city has the ability to overwhelm and break us. But with the fullness of the gospel message at our disposal, we have the ability to overwhelm the city with Christ’s love.