Zadie Smith’s NW: Opportunities knocked

Kilburn, Willesden, Harlesden. London’s north-west neighbourhoods pulse through this triptych of interconnected tales. Their council estates and streets are the building blocks and threads of a narrative that sweeps its way through ideas of opportunity, identity and class.

Zadie Smith’s affection for the area, her area (at least before she moved to New York), is clear. Her characters never escape it, whether they want to or not and irrespective of the rare foray into central London. Readers, especially those living locally, may choose to revel in the fecundity, though for many of the young professionals who now call NW home, it may be easier to observe this multicultural landscape dispassionately; just as it’s possible to spend time on Kilburn High Road yet never engage with anyone meaningfully.

“A local tip: the bus stop outside Kilburn’s Poundland is the site of many of the more engaging conversations to be heard in the city of London.”

Gazing down on NW from such a height would be a disservice to Smith’s abilities. The crowning glory of this book is its dialogue, internal or conversational (and the two often merge). Rich in vernacular and alert to linguistic trends (“It was the year everyone was saying that such and such a person was ‘their rock'”), the conversations peppered across the pages are those you hear on the streets.

Yet, for all the local detail, and the acute, native understanding of lives lived here, the setting ends up a backdrop when it feels as if Smith wanted it to be a character in its own right. Her prose doesn’t help here: the conflict between self-aware changes of pace, style and form, and the natural ebbs and flows she creates in dialogue left me tripping up; forcing me to stand back from the story rather than fall into it as if into the arms of a lively Kilburn pub.

NW has had some lofty accolades heaped on it, but it certainly hasn’t grabbed everyone. It has some gorgeous vignettes but is never the sum of its parts. It has interesting things to say about opportunity and aspiration, but fell short of making me think new thoughts, which I feel any great novel should do. It has some entertaining and insightful characters, but they are often the co-stars rather than the protagonists. Ultimately, it feels more like a book set at a precise time rather than one set in a particular place.

In a final, unsettling, move, it ends abruptly.

Zadie Smith
Penguin, 2012

Zadie Smith shines light on Kilburn

“I do not claim to know what happens in villages”

Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith is everywhere at the moment, and yet this media ubiquity also has a very firm geographic focal point: North-west London.

No great surprise there, after all, Smith has become some sort of literary symbol for the cultural melting pot of this part of the capital. And when she titles her latest book “NW”, you can’t blame journalists for making something of it.

Since 2010, Zadie Smith has been a professor of creative writing at New York University. She’s not popping into Poundland on the Kilburn High Road of a Saturday morning. Yet the sense of north-weezy (as the kids say) identity and affection clearly runs deep. Back in June, she wrote an impassioned article in the New York Review of Books about the plans for Willesden library and bookshop (read the article if you haven’t already).

In what one hopes was a great editorial idea, rather than clever publisher PR, TimeOut this week took Smith up the Kilburn High Road to meet a few locals. Although defining what “local” is in Kilburn is a tricky matter as one tweeter commented.

@jamesrobking @timeoutlondon how many “locals” did she Speak to? Er none by the looks of it. But welcome to all the visitors of Kilburn.
— ANNE MOUTADJER (@kilburnbelle) September 6, 2012

Kilburn High Road has always been a street on the move though. It’s arterial, with all the blood-pumping energy that implies. Not so many “born and bred” locals, but a galaxy of people who’ve called it home at one time or another. That’s what has made it Kilburn.