English Literature
NW Zadie Smith

NW Zadie Smith

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Zadie Smith's NW: A Story of Friendship, Identity, and Urban Life

Zadie Smith's fourth novel NW takes place in northwest London, specifically in the neighborhood of Kilburn, where the protagonists share a childhood. The story follows three characters, Leah, Keisha (later known as Natalie), and Felix, as they navigate the complexities of contemporary urban life. NW was widely praised by critics and became a commercial success, even being nominated for the Women's Prize for Fiction in 2013 and adapted into a BBC film in 2016.

The novel centers around the friendship between Leah and Keisha, which is crucial to the narrative. It follows their journey from adolescence to adulthood, as they confront issues of class, gender, sexuality, race, education, and career aspirations. As their lives diverge, Keisha, now Natalie, becomes a successful barrister and moves to a wealthier neighborhood, while Leah stays in their local community. This creates a conflict between the two friends as they struggle to reconcile their different socio-economic backgrounds with their shared past.

The story also follows Felix, a recovered addict, as he tries to start a new life. Despite their differences, all three characters are on a quest to find their identities in a rapidly changing urban world. The novel is divided into five parts, each focusing on a different character and their experiences.

Leah: Childhood, Marriage, and Secrets

The first section, titled "Visitation," follows Leah's story as she falls victim to a scam and becomes obsessed with finding the perpetrator. She is happily married to Michel, a French Algerian immigrant, but their disagreement on starting a family causes tension in their relationship. Without his knowledge, Leah secretly has an abortion and takes birth control pills, eventually leading to a nervous breakdown.

Felix: Recovery, Goodbyes, and Tragedy

In the second part, "Guest," the narrative shifts to Felix, now newly sober, as he tries to move on with his life. He visits his ex-lover to say goodbye, but on his way home, he is tragically mugged and killed after an argument with two men on a train. The news of his death is broadcasted on television, and the other characters learn of his fate.

Keisha/Natalie: Transformation, Success, and a Double Life

The third part, "Host," delves into Keisha's transformation into Natalie. Despite growing up in the humble Caldwell estate, Keisha excels in her studies and attends a prestigious university. She changes her name to Natalie and becomes a successful lawyer, living in an affluent neighborhood. However, she leads a secret life, arranging sexual encounters with strangers through the internet.

The Unraveling of Natalie's Life

The fourth section, "Crossing," reveals Natalie's secret to her husband, Frank, jeopardizing her family and entire life. Distraught, she returns to Caldwell, where she reunites with Nathan Bogle, a former classmate and drug dealer. As they reflect on their past struggles, Natalie contemplates suicide before ultimately deciding to go back to her life.

Revelations and Justice

The final section, also titled "Visitation," brings us back to the novel's first part. Natalie and her husband, Frank, attempt to work through their issues, but they are interrupted by a call from Michel, who has found Leah's secret birth control pills, causing her to have a nervous breakdown. During a conversation, they realize that Nathan is responsible for Felix's murder. They inform the police, and the novel ends with the characters left to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.

The Characters of NW

Let's take a closer look at the main characters of NW.

Leah Hanwell: Leah is the first character we meet in the novel. She is the child of Irish immigrants and has a relatively stable childhood. Leah befriends Keisha while growing up in the Caldwell estate, but their different personalities and goals become apparent.

Felix Cooper: Felix is a former drug addict determined to turn his life around with the support of his girlfriend, Grace. He distances himself from his past and sets his sights on a career in film.

Natalie Blake: Daughter of Jamaican immigrants, Natalie grows up in a more humble environment compared to her best friend, Leah. Despite this, she remains ambitious and determined to achieve success. In college, she changes her name to Natalie to fit in with her new social circle.

Reconciling the Past and Present: Zadie Smith's NW Explores Identity and Class in Northwest London

After graduating, Natalie becomes a successful lawyer and marries into a wealthy family. However, she struggles to reconcile her current life with her humble upbringing in the working-class neighborhood of Caldwell. Her old classmate, Nathan Bogle, takes a different path and becomes a drug dealer and possibly a pimp, operating from a house on Leah's street. In her novel, Northwest (NW), Zadie Smith paints a vivid picture of the bustling and diverse streets of northwest London, highlighting the overwhelming nature of urban living. Through her sharp descriptions, Smith immerses the reader in the sights, sounds, and smells of this specific location.

The Allure of Urban Living

As Natalie walks down Kilburn High Road, she feels a strong desire to slip into the lives of those around her. She ponders on what this means and how it could be fulfilled, imagining herself joining the conversations of a Somali kid, an old Russian lady, or a Ukrainian gangster. Smith adds a personal touch by addressing the reader directly, saying, "You're welcome" for revealing this local tip about the bus stop outside of Poundland.

However, while Natalie is drawn to the potential wealth and glamour of her successful friends, she values morals and authenticity more than money. This stark contrast between her and her friend Michel, who does not prioritize morals, causes tension in their relationship and highlights the disparity between their economic situations.

A Reflection on Class and Identity

Class is a recurring theme in NW, as each character grapples with their social status and personal identity. Natalie and Leah's friendship is tested as they grow apart economically. Natalie, as the first in her family to achieve social mobility, struggles to reconcile her newfound wealth with her heritage and feeling disconnected from her past. Smith also explores the restructuring of the class system in modern times, with education and wealth becoming more accessible. Despite these changes, there are still clear disparities in wealth, exemplified by Natalie's immigrant success and the limitations of the class system in London.

Unconventional Narrative Techniques

Smith's unique narrative style in NW adds depth and complexity to the characters' searches for identity. The non-linear timeline, flashbacks, vignettes, text message chats, and stream-of-consciousness narration mirror the characters' fragmented and chaotic journeys. This allows for a deeper examination of their inner thoughts and motivations, rather than just focusing on plot events.

A Personal Touch from the Author

NW was published in 2012 by acclaimed British author Zadie Smith, who herself grew up in northwest London. The title is derived from the novel's setting in the NW postcode area, adding a personal touch and deeper connection to the story.

An Exploration of Modern Society

Through NW, Zadie Smith tackles complex themes of class, culture, urban living, and identity. By delving into the intertwined lives of her characters, she offers a thought-provoking commentary on the challenges of finding a true sense of self in a rapidly changing and diverse society.

The Fascinating and Changing Lives of Leah, Keisha, and Felix in NW

NW by Zadie Smith delves into the intricacies of three main characters - Leah Hanwell, Keisha (Natalie) Blake, and Felix Cooper. These characters' lives are closely intertwined throughout the novel, as they navigate through various challenges and experiences. Smith successfully portrays a diverse and multi-faceted group of Londoners, with each character facing their own unique struggles and desires.

A Glimpse into a Fragmented Society

With its unique blend of literary techniques and exploration of societal issues, NW offers a captivating and profound insight into a fragmented world. It sheds light on the constant search for identity in a society that is constantly changing and challenging individuals in unexpected ways. Throughout the novel, readers are taken on a journey through the lives of Leah, Keisha, and Felix, each representing a different perspective on navigating the complexities of modern-day London.

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