In the months after Britain voted to leave the European Union, Zadie Smith wrote a piece for The New York Review of Books: “Fences: A Brexit Diary”. The piece hovers around a primary school in North West London, a school that many of her oldest friends went to, the same school Smith’s own daughter studied at for a year. Smith worries over a new “wooden veil” that is erected around the Victorian building, and the class gap between “the shiny black door” of her own house, and the housing project of the mother of her daughter’s friend. “The distance between her flat and my house — though it is, in reality, only 200 yards—is, in symbol, further than it has ever been.”
“One useful consequence of Brexit is to finally and openly reveal a deep fracture in British society that has been 30 years in the making,” Smith writes. What better time, then, for an adaptation of her fourth novel, NW, to hit screens. The action of the BBC drama also hovers around a primary school in North West London – although we never see the physical school, the two main characters Leah (Phoebe Fox) and Natalie (Nikki Amuka-Bird) both studied there alongside former classmates Felix (O. T. Fagbenle) and Nathan (Richie Campbell).
Each now leads a very different life: Natalie has “made it” as a successful barrister with the gorgeous huge home, charismatic husband, and two cute children to match; Leah lives in a homey flat (“nice, for a council”) with her French-Algerian husband Michel; Felix, in love, has battled drug and alcohol addictions and has hopes of becoming a mechanic, and Nathan is living on the street. When Natalie’s law mentor, a black female QC, tells her of white men at the bar: “They recognise each other. They went to the same school.” There’s a grim irony to this line, when Natalie, Leah, Felix and Nathan often struggle to recognise each other, both literally and figuratively.
They are all in various degrees of happiness – that don’t necessarily correlate with their degree of social status. When the novel was released, Zadie Smith spoke on BBC Radio 4 of her surprise at the “assumption that rising to a middle class life is the aim of everybody, and the final example of human happiness”. Of course, “when you meet middle class people, so many of them are intensely miserable.”
Natalie’s move into a middle-class life has left her lonely, filled with a “need to slip into the lives of other people”. Leah finds encouragement from her mother to take the “next step” by having children depressing: “I don’t wanna move forward. I like it here”. Meanwhile, her husband insists, “I am always moving forward […] I’m going up the ladder – one step at least.” Nathan feels stuck on a path to crime, addiction and homelessness that he cannot escape.
NW is deeply concerned with the implications of class and social mobility – which seems apt for a political era that is increasingly led by emotion. It’s one thing to sit and read reams of statistics on the impact social mobility has on specific communities and districts, but another to understand what it does to the individual emotions and interpersonal relationships of the people it impacts the most. NW explores this via lingering shots of Fox and Amuka-Bird, examining how they spend time alone, following sometimes tense conversations between childhood friends separated by invisible divides in adulthood. In doing so, it questions the validity of concepts like mobility, meritocracy, or personal advancement.
“I’m actually living in a tower block,” Smith muses in the same Radio 4 interview. “A tower block that, physically, is not a million miles away from the tower block I lived in in a council estate […] The actual, physical space of this block is not much different than a million high-rises in London. So, again, you wonder if it’s the actual structure of the thing that is the curse, or the way people are thought of in that building, the way they think of themselves.”
At the end of NW, a lost and bewildered Leah struggles to understand why she has been lucky enough to lead a life of relative comfort compared to her school peers. “It’s ’cause we worked harder,” Natalie insists. “Because we were smart and we wanted to get out. People like [Nathan] Bogle, they just don’t want it enough. I’m sorry if that answer sounds ugly to you, Lee, but it’s the truth.” Leah doesn’t believe it, and neither do we.
Smith writes in the NYRB, “Extreme inequality fractures communities, and after a while the cracks gape so wide the whole edifice comes tumbling down.” NW can’t offer any solutions to the problems of extreme inequality, but it does spend time sensitively exploring these hairline fractures as they start to appear.