As present-day literature continues to focus on lengthy plots and dramatic turns on every page, it’s easy to forget that the setting of a novel was once just as important as the protagonists.
In 1831, Victor Hugo dedicated chapters of The Hunchback of Notre Dame to characterizing the streets of Paris. Santa Monica came to life in the pages of Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely.
And while the plots of present-day bestsellers like Toni Morrison’s Home and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower are enjoyable, they just don’t depend on setting the way their predecessors did.
But Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth and On Beauty, takes readers back to the old trend with her new novel, NW, where the Willesden community of northwest London forms the centerpiece of the narrative.
NW follows the interconnecting stories of Leah, Felix, Natalie and Nathan, childhood friends who struggle with growing up in different class backgrounds within the same community. The Caldwell estate of Willesden alternately captures and releases these characters: Despite the fact that these Londoners try their hardest to escape Caldwell, each is haunted by some element of their past and is prevented from truly starting over.
Leah, a married woman in her early 30s, struggles to accommodate her husband’s desires for children. She would much rather focus her maternal energies on her dog, Olive. Felix longs to escape his dark past and his father’s influence but is constantly held back by the woman he used to love. Natalie, the “woman who has everything,” continuously attempts and fails to find satisfaction from her marriage, her children and ultimately her law career. Finally, Nathan, a neighborhood drug dealer, serves as the novel’s centerpiece, appearing in each narrative and reminding the characters of what they could have become.
For NW, Smith relies on extreme polarization. The novel explores continual highs and lows: motherhood and childlessness, glory and failure, privilege and work ethic. If the characters fluctuate from one end of the spectrum to another, the readers are forever stranded in a liminal state, gathering glimpses from all of these separate worlds and understanding. Still, though Smith has enough material here for four novels, she organizes NW around one central question: How do we end up where we are?
“I just don’t understand why I have this life,” says Leah in the novel’s final few pages. “You, me, all of us. Why that girl and not us. Why that poor bastard on Albert Road. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
And though her best friend Natalie responds, “We were smarter and we knew we didn’t want to end up begging on other people’s doorsteps,” Smith chooses to leave the answer up to the audience. By the end of NW, notions of fate and free will are just as unclear as they were on the first page, and it is up to the reader to decide whether or not these characters have truly “made it” in the world.
But Smith doesn’t make this decision easy. Her characters avoid a standard cookie-cutter format, and their behaviors are alternately attractive and appalling. Cheating and adultery seem to be regular occurrences in the novel, as are abortion, drug addiction and violence. Ironically, the drug-addicted Nathan seems to be the most redemptive character. Though Natalie, Leah and Felix have, arguably, escaped their original community, readers doubt whether or not they’re truly better off. Here again, Smith leaves another layer of ambiguity.
Still, despite the novel’s heavy thematic elements and complex characters, Smith’s prose forms the highlight of NW. The author’s writing style leaps from the page as Smith plays with font size, punctuation and even poetry. In the first section of the novel, “Visitation,” Smith, instead of describing a character’s features in standard prose, creates a “word-image” of Leah’s coworker’s mouth, substituting words for where the character’s teeth, fillings and tongue would be in an ordinary image. Then, several pages later in “Host,” Smith describes Natalie’s honeymoon in a series of words; Choppy phrases like “Sun. Prosecco. Sky, bleached,” and “He swims. Every day,” tell the reader everything he or she needs to know by conjuring up a series of pleasant images.
In fact, much of NW shies away from full-fledged sentences. Smith instead uses lists of adjectives, descriptive fragments and even snippets from emails to weave a complex narrative and conjure up appropriate emotions from the audience. Even if readers don’t have a final answer to the “fate versus free will” question, there’s very little doubt as to whether Smith is a master of the English language.
NW’s honest narration of its four characters and its relevant questions of chance and free will make the book a modern masterpiece. And despite its dark topics and heartbreaking ending, the novel remains startlingly optimistic.
Perhaps we can’t shape our destinies, but the lessons of the past give us the opportunity to make the best of our future.