NW was something of a challenge for me. It’s the kind of novel you find yourself enjoying until you stop to think about what it really means. So much of the way it was written seemed to stereotype London and lack depth and meaning in a way which I found depressing. The narrative meandered and didn’t really tie together at the end. However, there is something about the way Smith writes about woman, which I find compelling, which redeemed the novel somewhat for me.
1. Reinforcing perceptions of estates
At the start I found it frustrating in it’s stereotypical London ‘estate-ness’. Most of the novel’s protagonists are quoted in a London-estate patois, which those of us familiar with it can hear in our heads and associate with a certain look, body movements, behaviours etc.
“Use to see Tommy and James Haven but I ain’t seen them recent. Not for time.”
(For instance, in this quote, “time” would always be the emphasized point in the sentence).
But without these associations I think the repeated patois could become confusing and irritating Although, if I didn’t over-analyse it, it didn’t bother me too much, I couldn’t understand how anyone who wasn’t very familiar with this world would find anything particularly engaging in the novel.
And if you are familiar with the estate life and the associations, this novel is simply a little depressing. Everyone is an addict, or living in poverty, or miserable, or trying to get out. It makes estates sound both depressing and inescapable. As an estate-dweller myself (although I accept a far-from-typical one) these stereotypes frustrate and sadden me. And more than that, I believe that their continued reinforcement in all forms of British media – even fiction – does nothing to improve the self-respect, aspirations or life chances of the people who may choose, or not, to live on an estate.
“In the 1880s or thereabouts the whole thing went up at once…Well-appointed country living for those tired of the city. Fast-forward. Disappointed city living for those tired of their countries.”
2. Obsession with class
This novel also falls into the English trap of being obsessed with class. And in a typically English way, nobody is right, everyone is just differently wrong. In general, I find this depressing about English novels, which are so rarely optimistic in the way of American ones. Again, I am not sure this plays well with external audiences, and presents the Brits in an unfairly depressing light.
“Bourgeois, bourgeois, bourgeois I think this is the only French word you knoew. You have become one of those English people.. who hate all their friends.”
“Some schools you ‘attended.’ Brayton you ‘went to.'”
“‘You can;t get anything on the park for less than a million’… The money was not for those poky terrace houses with their short back gardens. The money was for the distance the house put between you and Caldwell.”
Over time, my opinion changed. The characters were well-rounded, and the storyline – at times – compelling. I did want to know what happened to people. Although one of the frustrations of the novel is that it’s hardcore this is real life approach meant most individual stories were left open ended.
In fact, the open ended issue is one of the novel’s greatest frustrations. The narrative consists of a series of vignettes, telling the stories of individuals from Caldwell, an estate in North West London. At the end these are loosely tied together. But in a way which is somehow so loose, it just feels like a lazy ending. Again, too open ended.
However, I think the novel was genuinely insightful about the way that women interact with women
Now, I am not much of a feminist. But still, it frustrated me that, often, in novels, the complexities of female behaviours and relationships is often lost, and women are portrayed as either “best buds” or “bitchy” without much substance to follow either assertion. Women’s friendships – and particularly the close ones – are far more complex than that, with a litany of unwritten rules. Something about Smith’s style captures this perfectly.
“It is perhaps the profound way in which capitalism enters women’s minds and bodies that renders ‘ruthless comparison’ the basic mode of their relationship with others.”
“She was in breech of that feminine law that states no weakness may be shown by a women to another woman without a sacrifice of equal value being made in return.”