The story begins with one of a pair of friends, a woman named Leah, who opens the door to someone from her neighborhood who is in distress. The woman is not of her class or her race and this non-meeting of minds has a tentative, ever shifting quality, where we don't really know who's on top even by the end of the meeting. As in E.M. Forster, who we know from On Beauty is one of Smith's lodestars, the inequality of status between the two people predicts a certain kind of outcome, and one which everyone else in the book subsequently forces upon Leah as the only probable one, but in the encounter itself, there lies the shimmering possibility of more than one interpretation.
NW, in case you don't know yet, is the designation for a certain northwestern section of London. This would have been a good book to have bound with some maps as endpapers, because unless you know London well, much better than I do, you may miss out on some of the magnificent joy of walking London's streets through the novel's eyes. Like it or hate it, or love it as I do, London is indisputably one of the world's greatest cities. I was thrilled, then, to have the characters, native Londoners, even with their overtones of Jamaican ancestry in some cases, come across the unknown in this, their native city. I suppose it's because I want some place in the world to be inexhaustible--or maybe all places in the world to be inexhaustible. In any event, Leah and her longtime friend Natalie eventually happen upon an ancient church in the middle of a roundabout, a place they had never noticed before. Many things are happening in the minds of these friends and between them as they wander this hallowed site, but for me, the fact that it happens in an English country church tucked away in the midst of the booming metropolis is quite wonderful.
Though we will hear the tale through both Leah's and Natalie's perspective, and in fact, in the third section will hear the entire story of that friendship from its beginning, there are a couple of other stories wandering through this tale. One of them is that of Felix, a Jamaican descended Englishman who wanders the city in his own segment. Some people have criticized this particular story for it's disconnectedness from the main narrative, but for me, there was an echo of Forster's secondary characters, who, try as they will, do not quite fit into the successful script of the main ones, as well as the Septimus Smith character of Mrs. Dalloway. In any good London novel, after all, there are the tracks and traces of other people living lives of purposes quite different than those of the protagonists, and yet in some way bound to theirs through the great metropolis all the same.
But then of course there are echoes of many other novels in this one, because Smith knows them well. She can't help including them in her frame of reference as a British novelist of the 21st century. They are part of her inheritance, they come with the territory. Joyce Carol Oates claims James Joyce for her, although I didn't think of him, but I'm sure there was some thought of him in writing about daily life in a metropolis--how could there not be? And her with her Irish husband...
In thinking about the book again, I listened to Smith read from the book, an experience you can replicate here. I was reminded again of the marvelous scene at the playground. The difference in speech between the parties that end up quarreling over an innocuous event on the children's roundabout comes through in the novel itself, but hearing her read it shows her mastery of the different speech patterns of a multitude of Londoners. I was surprised, in fact, to discover that her speaking voice retains so much of the Jamaican accents that I sometimes hear when I watch Eastenders. It is obvious from her reading that this is something of a conscious choice.
I am obviously not telling you much about the actual plot of the novel, because I want you to discover it for yourself. I will say that I read an interview Smith did once with the novelist Ian McEwan. (She was interviewing him.) She admitted that she hadn't quite figured out how to do endings, and complimented him on his success at that.
With NW, I'd say she figured that one out.