NW is the postal code of an area of northwest London where Smith’s characters were brought up and reside. They were all raised in the same housing project, a group of towers that dominates the area of the impoverished and ethnically mixed Kilburn. In each section of the novel, we follow a different character.
Leah Hanwell has escaped the projects but lives within sight of them in a nicer neighborhood. She is of Irish and English heritage, married to Michel, who is half Algerian, half Guadaloupan. Her best friend Natalie Blake is first generation English of Caribbean origin. It seems that for every character in this novel, ethnic heritage is a mixed bag and not a way to find an identity.
Leah has come to resent Natalie, who has been the most successful of their acquaintances. Leah misses their former closeness and feels they now have little in common, especially since Natalie had children. The issue of children is a stressful one for Leah, who has been secretly taking birth control pills while her husband thinks they are trying to conceive. The only absolute and pure love Leah has to bestow goes to her dog Olive.
Leah is home alone when a woman comes to her door claiming to have an emergency. When the woman recognizes Leah as a former resident of the same building in the projects, all pretence of an emergency seems to disappear as they exchange information about common acquaintances. Even so, Leah impulsively hands over a fairly large sum of money. Afterwards, she vacillates between sympathy for this woman–a drug addict on the con–and a resentment that she’s been cheated. Telling Michel about it sets up a situation that ends badly.
In the second section of the book, Felix starts out his day of running a few errands in a cheerful mood. He is going to visit his father, say goodbye to an old girlfriend, perhaps buy a car. He is happy in his life. He has kicked a drug habit, is in love with his girlfriend, has a good job, and wants to lead a more productive life. We don’t anticipate what happens to Felix.
The bulk of the novel belongs to Natalie, who has remade her life, including changing her name from Keisha. She is a lawyer married to a day trader, with two children. She lives in a beautiful house in an upscale neighborhood. She is outwardly a confident, take-charge woman, but inwardly much more tentative. As one of her friends says, she’s been telling everyone all their lives that she is different from them. Yet surely, her impulse is more to fit in.
Natalie and her husband Frank pretend to be a loving couple, but when they are not out in public they spend little time with each other. Natalie doesn’t enjoy her children, either. Of all the characters, including a homeless drug addict named Nathan that Leah and Natalie had crushes on when they were all kids, she seems the most discontented. In one way, she has erased her former life. In another, she drags it along with her. All she enjoys is her work.
The novel is presented in a fragmented way. Conversations begin in the middle and sentences are cut off. Issues remain unresolved. Dialogue and descriptions are vivid but gritty, such as when Leah and Natalie push a stroller through a trash-lined neighborhood to find an ancient church in the middle of a traffic circle, its tombstones covered in graffiti. Smith’s novel is ambitious, an urban slice of several lives.
A little side note. The paperback copy of this novel has a typo on the back cover where it calls a character by the wrong name. I kept waiting for that character to appear until I figured out what was going on. That’s a pretty big mistake. Just sayin’.