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Potential Inspiration for NW | © David Howard/Flickr
Potential Inspiration for NW | © David Howard/Flickr
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A Literary Tour of London: Zadie Smith's Willesden

Picture of James Gunn
Updated: 29 October 2017
Zadie Smith now lives in New York and teaches at NYU, yet her move away from the UK has not stopped her writing about her home. Specifically, her fiction always returns to the area where Smith grew up, Kilburn and Willesden. From her prodigious first novel, White Teeth, to her most recent, Man Booker shortlisted novel, Swing Time, this somehow always finds a way of sneaking in. See the funeral Howard Belsey attends in Kilburn in On Beauty, a novel set entirely in a fictional college town in the States apart from this interlude, or the dance classes that Swing Time’s unnamed narrator attends.

In Smith’s fourth novel, NW, which takes the acronym of the North-West London postcode covering Kilburn and Willesden, her affinity with the area comes through strongest. These two neighbourhoods are in the borough of Brent, the most diverse borough in the UK – it is no wonder Smith keeps returning for material. For Smith London ‘is a state of mind’, and it is NW which gets closest to that in essence as a novel wholly centred upon the tensions at play in this pocket of the capital.

Zadie Smith courtesy of newschool.edu
Zadie Smith courtesy of newschool.edu

NW is a tragi-comic novel which follows four Londoners, Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan, who lead very different lives having grown up on the same fictional estate in Willesden. Leah and Natalie were childhood friends, but while Natalie – who has overcome the odds to become a prominent black barrister – has upgraded her lot to the posh houses round by Queens Park, Leah finds herself still stuck in council accommodation by the high road. Felix is a happy-go-lucky Caribbean whose first appearance sees him leave the neighbourhood from Kilburn tube station to make his way towards Oxford Circus where he is buying a classic car off an out of touch posh boy sent to do daddy’s business. Nathan’s is the darkest side to the novel, having gone furthest off the rails and finding himself running girls and ruining lives.

Not all is as it seems as Smith draws out the details from their lives which animate the events of the novel. We aren’t so amazed by what happens, but by the implications created by their contexts. Kilburn High Road and Willesden Lane are the arteries which run through this book and which also pulse through some of her other novels to a lesser degree. The book climaxes with Natalie and Nathan climbing the hill which starts in Willesden and ends in Hampstead and Highgate. As they ascend, they go through Willesden Lane, Kilburn High Road, the aptly named Shoot-Up Hill, Fortune Green, Archway and Hampstead Heath. The higher they get, the better view of London they have; yet, the further from home they are the further the threads that hold their characters together strain, ever threatening to snap.

Gaumont State Cinema Tower, Kilburn High Road, London.
Gaumont State Cinema Tower, Kilburn High Road, London. | © Jim Linwood | Flickr

NW really is a novel that wants you to dwell in the depths of real London life, at the street level of drama that comes from a city both divided by the diversity that leads to segregation and poverty and enriched by the diversity that brings true cultural wealth and variety to the very same inhabitants. While it is almost possible to walk your way around Willesden following Zadie Smith’s novel, to actually follow its progress through the lives of its characters is to live a genuine London drama.