Formerly known as the Orange Prize, the Women’s Prize for Fiction is awarded annually and ‘celebrates excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world.’ We delve into the first of the six shortlisted novels – Zadie Smith’s portrait of the modern urban zone, NW.
Zadie Smith chooses her home turf – the frenzied and relentless North West London – as the base upon which she chronicles the lives of four individuals, each fractured and discombobulated as they try to escape their past and find meaning in the present.
A white Londoner married to a French-Algerian man, Leah Hanwell’s reality is pushed into stark focus when she encounters a desperate woman by the name of Shar who pleads for her help one sweltering afternoon. A simple benevolent act, and subsequent betrayal, forces Leah to re-examine her very existence and confront a destiny that seems dictated by external preconceptions of what is good and right.
Leah’s best friend Keisha Blake is a young woman of Jamaican ancestry who changed her name to Natalie once she hit university. Natalie grapples with a fragmented sense of self as she sheds the shackles of her impoverished background and flourishes into a reputable barrister, in a seemingly happy marriage with a wealthy Afro-Italian aristocrat and two beautiful young children. With a lavish apartment and a Polish nanny to boot, Natalie struggles to contain the gaping hole in her self-concocted identity as she labours to play the version of herself she thinks everyone wants to see.
Also originally from Caldwell – the underprivileged council estate of Leah and Natalie’s childhood – former drug dealer Felix Cooper aspires to flee his substance-addled life and a dysfunctional love affair with an older woman. The captivating chapter Smith devotes to Felix details him setting about unremarkable tasks and duties, rendered all the more significant by events that ultimately shape his fate.
Some of the most memorable and evocative characters feature in Felix’s narrative: from his maverick dad Lloyd and his young, sheltered customer Tom Mercer who’s so white his face can ‘broadcast shame so quickly,’ to Felix’s old flame Annie – former ballet dancer of a wealthy background whose graceless fall into drugs and alcohol is at once pitiful and compelling.
Drifting in and out of their lives is Nathan Bogle, a wayward young man inextricably linked to each and every one of them.
NW oscillates between the past and present, as Smith details the intense connection the two female protagonists share, from the moment they were first brought together by a ‘dramatic event’ to the present.
Just as Natalie saved Leah from drowning when they were children, she emerges once again as an allayer towards the end of the novel as Leah grapples with an existential crisis – wondering why some people are born fortunate and others not.
We worked harder. We were smarter and we knew we didn’t want to end up begging on other people’s doorsteps. We wanted to get out. People like Bogle – they didn’t want it enough.
Yet the untimely end that befalls the striving Felix only serves to underscore the vacuousness of this argument – underlining that life is but an amalgamation of chance moments that unite either to propel us forwards or sentence us to an inopportune end.
Delving into the acute sense of malaise and the steep feel of inertia that accompanies urban living, Smith explores the weight of societal expectations, and the tensions of class, gender and race. She is at her best when she weaves wry observations and profound insight into the tapestry of her character’s innermost thoughts and social interactions.
The conversation baton passes to others, who tell their anecdotes with more panache, linking them to matters of the wider culture, debates in the newspapers. Leah tries to explain what she does for a living to someone who doesn’t care.
The book is often jarring, discomfiting in lack of clearly definable structure, and hard to follow as it catapults between deviating narratives and loosely connected chronologies.
But enriched by the meandering words and divergent storylines, slang peppered throughout and snippets of colourful dialogue seamlessly incorporated into the fray, NW is a lyrical masterpiece, an introspective gaze into the glaring chasms characteristic of a multiethnic society with varying social stratums.
Though the novel is synonymous with life in London, with frequent mention of landmarks familiar to anyone who has traversed along its frenetic pathways, Zadie Smith’s reflection on the inevitability of conformity, the inherent hypocrisy of the middle class, the disenchanting race to the top, and the vagaries of a bond two imperfect individuals share is at once recognisable as it prompts us to draw unlikely parallels between our lives and that of the characters.