After the death of her dog, Leah becomes crippled by “terrible mourning” and at the novel’s end her desperate husband calls Natalie, when Leah seems to have become depressed to the point of catatonia.
Perhaps it’s because we come to know Leah through her meandering stream-of-consciousness thoughts that she remains indistinct and improbable, and not sharp-edged; the reader is constrained by her claustrophobic life for many pages, like a viewer standing too close to one of Chuck Close’s gigantic portraits comprised of pixels, and so unable to recognize a human face.
Keisha/Natalie, however, is initially seen from the outside, by an admiring Leah: “Sleek ebony statuary. Tilts her head directly to the sun. [Her husband], too. They look like a king and queen in profile on an ancient coin.” Much later in NW we come to know Keisha/Natalie intimately, as a willful child who is an excellent student because she can concentrate, without distractions; she is puzzled by “what she believed she knew of herself, essentially, and her essence as others seemed to understand it.” Perhaps there is no autobiographical core to Keisha/Natalie, but her personality suggests that of the quintessential novelist who suspects that she alone is lacking an identity:
(Sometimes, when enjoying [her friend] Pol’s capsule descriptions of the personalities of others, Natalie feared that in her own—Natalie’s—absence, her own—Natalie’s—personality was also being encapsulated by Pol, although she could not bring herself to truly fear this possibility because at base she could not believe that she—Natalie—could ever be spoken about in the way she—Natalie—spoke about others and heard others spoken about. But for the sake of a thought experiment: what was Natalie Blake’s personality constructed around?)
Here, too, is a convincing account of the fiction writer’s predilection:
Walking down Kilburn High Road Natalie Blake had a strong desire to slip into the lives of other people. It was hard to see how this desire could be practicably satisfied or what, if anything, it really meant. “Slip into” is an imprecise thought. Follow the Somali kid home? Sit with the old Russian lady at the bus-stop outside Poundland? Join the Ukrainian gangster at his table at the cake shop?…
Listening was not enough. Natalie Blake wanted to know people. To become intimately involved with them.
Just how intimately, and how recklessly, Natalie herself doesn’t yet know.
Keisha/Natalie is very likely the most sustained, sympathetic, and believable figure in all of Zadie Smith’s fiction, encompassing as she does an astonishing variety of characters and types. Particularly as a law student, and as a young (female, black) lawyer, she is an astute observer of the seductive atmosphere of the university in which she is an “endangered species”—both unwittingly and deliberately; we are made to feel the thrill of cultural assimilation, as the author herself may well have felt it as a brilliant young undergraduate English literature student at Cambridge in the late 1990s:
The bad wine flowed. An ancient Judge rose to give a speech…. Natalie was enthralled. The idea that her own existence might be linked to people living six hundred years past! No longer an accidental guest at the table—as she had always understood herself to be—but a host, with other hosts, continuing a tradition. “And so it falls to you,” said the judge….
It’s difficult not to exploit one’s racial identity in a culture in which, being black, Natalie and her husband “needn’t concern themselves too much with politics. They simply were political facts, in their very persons.” Painful ironies abound for one of Natalie’s sensitivity: “Something about Natalie inspired patronage, as if by helping her you helped an unseen multitude.”
Later, when she has a law degree and is looking for work, Natalie is counseled by an older, glamorous black woman lawyer, a paragon of multicultural success, that what is interpreted as a “passion” for justice in a white (male) lawyer will be interpreted by the presiding judge in a courtroom as “aggressive hysteria” in a black (female) lawyer: “The first lesson is: turn yourself down.” More importantly:
“I suppose you’re interested in a human rights set of some kind. Police brutality? Is that your plan?”
“I’m not sure,” said Natalie, trying to sound bullish. She was very close to tears.
“It wasn’t mine. In my day, if you went down that route people tended to associate you with your clients. I took some advice early on: ‘Avoid ghetto work.’”
Predictably, Natalie repudiates this cynical advice, joining a tiny legal firm in a squalid part of London as a paralegal; less predictably, she soon quits the firm to take higher-paying work as a commercial barrister with former classmates from law school. (Of course, Natalie takes time to do pro bono death penalty cases in the Caribbean, as befits one in her position.) Her fragile sense of identity is further strained by the responsibilities and hypocrisies of adulthood:
Daughter drag. Sister drag. Mother drag. Wife drag. Court drag. Rich drag. Poor drag. British drag. Jamaican drag. Each required a different wardrobe. But when considering these various attitudes she struggled to think what would be the most authentic, or perhaps the least inauthentic.
By degrees, Natalie begins to see herself as inauthentic: she isn’t happily married, she secretly loathes her high-paying work as a barrister, and she even feels alienated from her children, who are so very different from the child she’d been in the Caldwell council estate not so many years ago:
She was surprised to meet herself down a dark alley. It filled her with panic and rage to see her spoiled children sat upon the floor, flicking through past images, moving images, of themselves, on their father’s phone, an experience of self-awareness literally unknown in the history of human existence—outside dream and miracle—until very recently.
Though claiming to loathe it, Natalie is irresistibly drawn to the Internet, where she creates for herself a shadow identity—KeishaNW@gmail.com—and where she discovers that “she was what everybody was looking for.” Sordid, quasi-comic promiscuous encounters with couples of various genders follow in somewhat slapstick sequences that test the reader’s credulity. So carefully self-invented, Natalie begins to fall apart as if on cue. When her husband discovers her KeishaNW identity on her computer, Natalie’s seemingly perfect marriage is wrecked.
NW ends in confusion and disintegration. In a long nightmare sequence, perhaps in emulation of the brilliantly bizarre “Nighttown” chapter of Ulys ses, Natalie returns on foot to her childhood neighborhood, where she encounters a debased and drug-addled Nathan Bogle, for whom she’d once felt an attraction. An intimate encounter between them—however un- likely this would appear, under the circumstances—seems to dissociate Natalie from the death-bound figure of her childhood. Riding a bus she sees old familiar landmarks with a transformed vision:
The Cock Tavern. MacDonalds. The old Woolworths. The betting shop. The State Empire. Willesden Lane. The cemetery. Whoever said these were fixed coordinates to which she had to be forever faithful? How could she play them false? Freedom was absolute and everywhere, constantly moving location.
In the end, Natalie and Leah are joined together in a curious sort of conspiracy, as in a regression to their girlhood friendship in the Caldwell council estate.
NW is an unexpectedly ironic companion novel to White Teeth, a darker and more nuanced portrait of a multiracial culture in the throes of a collective nervous breakdown. Its perimeters are forever changing, like its accents and the tenor of its neighborhoods. In NW the mood is, if not precisely tragic, sober and subdued; one might wish to celebrate a truly “diverse” urban neighborhood like Willesden and yet—there are muggings, murders. There is a brisk drug trade. Bonded as individuals in NW might be, the “fixed coordinates” of their lives are finally suffocating and lethal. There are no farcical interludes here, as in previous works of fiction by Zadie Smith, as there are no paper-thin cartoon characters to enact them. Maturity may lie in the brave repudiation of nostalgia; the realization that “maybe it doesn’t matter that life never blossomed into something larger than itself.”