London: Lost and Found in Zadie Smith's new novel

If you have ever taken a ride back home on a London night bus, from the centre of town to one of the outer boroughs, you will know that it is an experience that can be, by turns, rowdy, lyrical, melancholy, heart warming and hair raising; sometimes all of these things, all at the same time. A mad mosaic of different languages surrounds you. Violence only ever seems a heart beat away. If you are not drunk or high, you will, most likely, find yourself outnumbered.

The poster girl of multicultural Britain

Reading Zadie Smith’s new novel, “NW”, is very much like getting onto one of those night buses.   A number 98, to be precise, the bus that will take you from suited and booted Holborn to the seething multiculturalism of Kilburn and Willesden, areas once densely populated by first generation Irish and Afro Caribbean immigrants, now in the grip of tumultuous gentrification.  

Zadie Smith, the daughter of a Jamaican mother and an English father, grew up in Willesden, which was the setting of  her debut novel, “White Teeth”. This was published to rave reviews in 2000, when she was just 24, a recent graduate of Cambridge University, and a dazzling beauty to boot. She received a whopping £250,000 advance for the novel.  All of this made her famous; she was often described as the ‘poster girl’ of multicultural Britain.  This is a ghastly distortion.  If anything, Smith is the existentialist of multiculturalism, a narrator who expresses a deep malaise around questions of class and racial identity.  

Writing in the Observer,  Caryl Phillips came closest to capturing the true, troubled character of “White Teeth”: “The ‘mongrel’ nation that is Britain is still struggling to find a way to stare into the mirror and accept the ebb and flow of history that has produced this fortuitously diverse condition and its concomitant pain.  Zadie Smith’s first novel is an audaciously assured contribution to this process of staring into the mirror.  Her narrator is deeply self conscious, so much so that one can almost hear the crisp echo of Salman Rushdie’s footsteps.  However, her wit, her breadth of vision and her ambition are of her own making.  The plot is rich, at times dizzyingly so, but White Teeth squares up to the two questions which gnaw at the very roots of our modern condition:  Who are we?  Why are we here?

“NW” digs down into London’s many layers of multicultural malaise with a cast of Willesden characters stratified by class and race but also, crucially, their own ideas of who and what they should be.  There’s a striving, upwardly mobile Jamaican barrister, Natalie Blake, who is married to a banker, Frank de Angelis.  As part of her class trajectory, Natalie has changed her name from Keisha, while Frank was formerly Francesco.  

As another character remarks, “It’s like dress for the job you want and not the one you have”. Frank is the product of a somewhat far fetched one off sexual encounter in a park between an Italian aristocrat and a Trinidadian train guard. ‘Frank’ and ‘Natalie’ are living the dream, or that’s how it seems to Leah Hanwell, Natalie’s envious old school friend, who is second generation London Irish, works for the local council and is married to a hairdresser, Michel, who is French/West African.  Then there’s Felix, the son of a Rastafarian, a recovering junkie who falls victim to street violence, but not before enjoying a sex romp on a Soho rooftop with an addled heiress.  

There are the crack head street hustlers, Shar and Nathan Bogle.   These figures criss cross the Willesden streets and each other’s lives in a plot that meanders to a destination that is strange and surprising and moving.  The action is both physical (there’s a murder) and psycho sexual.  Natalie Blake’s growing alienation from her husband, her family and herself  (signified at the outset by her name change), expresses itself in eye popping sexual risk taking with strangers and builds towards a meltdown that thrusts her out onto the streets with Nathan Bogle for a night.

Identity is an issue

Although all of the main characters in “NW” go through struggles with issues of identity, which are often expressed in conflicts with parents and siblings, it is Natalie/Keisha Blake who brings those issues most sharply into focus, and whose journey of disassociation from her roots most closely resembles that of the author.  In an interview on the US radio show, Bookworm, Smith said this:

When I was a child, I was constantly being told that various habits of mine, I suppose including reading, made me less black than I should be…but the idea that you can be less authentic than you are, is nonsense; there’s no such thing and to struggle under that idea, to concern yourself constantly about your identity, seems to me a kind of prison and it’s one that white people don’t have to anything like the same degree; they have a kind of existential freedom that they don’t even notice, because, of course, it’s what every human being should have and deserves to have, and is natural, but if you don’t have it, if you are constantly wondering instead, not what it is to be, but what it is to be black, then you’re completely cornered…I suppose all my characters to some extent are looking for identities …constantly, when I’m in interview, I am being told my books are all about the search for identity and I always think, my books are about that search being entirely pointless….

There is a painful scene in “NW” when Natalie visits her sister, Cheryl, and her mother, who are still living on Caldwell (“Caldie”), the council estate where she grew up.   They still call her Keisha, but she no longer belongs there.

If you hate Caldie so much why d’you even come here?

Seriously, man, no-one asked you to come.  Go back to

your new manor. I’m busy.  Ain’t really got time to chat to

you, neither.  You piss me off, sometimes, Keisha. No, but you do.


When I was at RSN’ said Natalie firmly, in the voice she used in court, ‘do you know how many of my clients were Caldies? There’s nothing wrong with wanting to see you and the kids in a nice place somewhere.’

‘This is a nice place!  There’s a lot worse.  You done all right out of it.  Keisha, if I wanted to get out of here I’d get another place off the council before I came to you, to be honest

Natalie/Keisha’s speech patterns are devoid of the Black Cockneyisms that pepper her sister’s dialogue.  Her family disdainfully regard her as a coconut – black on the outside, white on the inside.  There’s a real cri de coeur when she says,

Why am I being punished for making something of my


Oh my days.  Who’s punishing you, Keisha?  Nobody.

That’s in your head.  You’re paranoid, man.!’

Natalie Blake could not be stopped: ‘I work hard. I came

in with no reputation, nothing. I’ve built up a serious

practice – do you have any idea how few –‘

‘Did you really come round here to tell me what a Big

Woman you are these days?’

‘I came round here to try to help you.’

‘But no-one in here is looking for your help, Keisha!

This is it!  I ain’t looking for you, end of.

In exile in New York

Although Zadie Smith still has a house in Willesden, she spends much of her time in New York, where she teaches Creative Writing, and there’s certainly a sense that she is writing about Willesden in exile, just as James Joyce wrote about Dublin while living in Paris.  The spirit of Joyce seems to hover over “NW’, with its long stream of consciousness passages:

From A to B redux:

Sweet stink of the hookah, couscous, kebabs, exhaust fumes of a bus deadlock. 98, 16, 32, standing room only – quicker to walk!  Escapees from St. Mary’s, Paddington: expectant father smoking, old lady wheeling herself in a wheelchair smoking, die-hard urine sack, blood sack, smoking.  Everybody loves fags.  Everybody.  Polish paper, Turkish paper, Arabic, Irish, French, Russian, Spanish, News of the World.  Unlock your (stolen) phone, buy a battery pack, a lighter pack, a perfume pack, sunglasses, three for a fiver, a life-size porcelain tiger, gold taps.

And so on.  There are however odd disconnects in the style of the novel, which is split into four sections, “visitation”, “guest” “host” and “crossing”.  In the first, most Joycean section, there are irritating modernist flourishes such as a description of an apple tree where the text is laid out in the shape of an apple tree. Inverted commas (which Joyce hated and called perverted commas) are eschewed and dialogue is introduced by means of a dash.  Inverted commas denoting dialogue appear in the second and third sections of the novel.  In the final segment, there is no punctuating indication of the beginning or ending of dialogue at all.   These variations are surely intended, but why?  Perhaps the point is the disconnection.

Speaking in 2006, Smith quoted E. Forster and his mantra, “Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted.”  She went on to say:  

There are parts of your life which aren’t purely intellectual, for instance, which aren’t on this higher level but they are connected to the other parts of you as well  and most of the misery of life to me is in feeling horrified by that other part of yourself …it what makes Puritanism for instance you can’t believe that you this noble animal  also do terrible things like have sex and have perverse desires and actually want things  which are against your own happiness for example but these things are ture and human and to be  able to contain both ideas will make you happy and rejecting this other half wil cause disaster….I was thinking so much of class and when someone like me becomes educated you leave this other half of you behind and it’s incredibly painful it’s hard to connect the me who likes to do the things  I used to do and spoke the way I used to speak and was amongst the people I used to be among and the person I am now….if you educate yourself,  as you become this other person, you’ve lost this other thing…

The misery of disconnection and the fragmentation of identity are Zadie (formerly Sadie) Smith’s great themes.   If E. M. Forster’s maxim was “Only Connect”, then Zadie Smith’s might be, “Mind the Gap”.