‘The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on school gates and lamp posts. In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside. She keeps to the shade. Redheaded. On the radio: I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me. A good line — write it out on the back of a magazine. In a hammock, in the garden of a basement flat. Fenced in, on all sides.
‘Four gardens along, in the estate, a grim girl on the third floor screams Anglo-Saxon at nobody. Juliet balcony, projecting for miles. It ain’t like that. Nah it ain’t like that. Don’t you start. Fag in hand. Fleshy, lobster-red.‘
Extract from the opening screne of NW
Although the back cover proclaims that this is the story of four Londoners who grew up in the same area and attended the same school, in practice this is really the story of only two of them: Natalie (formerly Keisha, social-climbing barrister, who married into money, but leads a double life) and Leah (caught in a turbulent marriage with the gorgeous Michel, who is desperate to have children). The two have been friends since childhood, bound together by an accident of fate, and the focus of the novel is on their relationship and the contrast between them.
Natalie, determined to distance herself from her upbringing, pursues her own interests, only tells anecdotes which are perfectly pitched to portray the image she wants, finds herself lost when her nanny is stranded abroad by the Icelandic volcano and she is stuck looking after her two children. Meanwhile, Leah, despite being defrauded at the start of the novel, seeks to aid the woman who tricked and robbed her, while in turn deceiving her husband Michel because she cannot bear the thought of having children.
The tone of the book is choppy — short sentence fragments abound — and London is vividly depicted, with dialogue razor sharp. There are a number of lyrical and stylistic techniques, with some sections reading more like poetry than prose. I particularly enjoyed the section devoted to Natalie, which tells the story of her life in numbered vignettes.
If the book has a fault, it is that it doesn’t delve enough into the lives of the secondary characters; Felix and Nathan seem incidental. I wanted to know more about Garvey house, the commune where Felix grew up.
NW deals with more mundane subject matter than White Teeth, its plot mechanics more realistic, its characters more everyday, but it benefits from being a portrait of two insstantly recogniseable women, and despite its choppy style (or perhaps because of it), it grabbed me right from the dreamlike opening and its pinsharp depiction of a lazy day in North London on a sweltering summer’s day.