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The Real UK

mmanzone's picture

The real NW

Though seemingly realistic, Zadie Smith’s NW is loaded with inaccuracies in regards to the area and characteristics of locals that become apparent after an investigation.  

While reading NW something didn’t ring true.  The story did not feel real.  Having never been to the area, however, I accepted the descriptions of all of the actual locations to be accurate.  I accepted Willesden as an area where whites are the minority, everyone smokes and most people are from modest backgrounds, but these characterizations are inaccurate.  According to a report on the public health of Brent County in London more than half of Willesden residents are white and about 70% of all people in London are as well (Willesden).  This report goes on to show that “at least a fifth of the population… smokes” and in all of the separate sections of Willesden, for men and women, unemployment ranges from 3.4% to 7.4% which is about 50% higher than that of all of England; the report does not, however, indicate the actual socioeconomic statuses common in Willesden.  Though just numbers, these statistics paint a much more detailed picture of the citizens of Willesden.

The characters that Zadie Smith writes about depict a wide, yet unrealistic, sample of people who might live in north west London, but her characters very rarely fit the picture of Willesden created from analyzing statistics.  According to these statistics about half of Smith’s characters should, if this was to be an accurate depiction, be white.  There is, however, only one who is known to be white, Leah.  Smith also used her artistic license when she depicts almost everyone smoking.   In the book all four of the main characters (Leah, Felix, Natalie and Nathan) are depicted smoking something (marijuana or cigarettes [“fags”])  at some point.  Leah smokes with her neighbor (Smith); Felix smokes when looking at the car (149); Natalie and Nathan smoke together when she is having her mental breakdown (367).  The way Smith has her characters talk about the area make it seem that many people in that area struggle to get by, and though some do, it is much lower amount than Smith makes it seem.  The world of north west London that Smith depicts seems to be a much harsher and unforgiving environment than it is in actuality, which serves her story well as it gives it more drama and a more interesting setting.

In addition to the flawed character depictions, Smith also included many inaccuracies with geographical concepts. In just examining the section in pages 41-43 (when she describes Leah’s experience walking down a street) many inaccuracies and false representations pertaining to the geography of London are discovered.  Most of the street names that she uses in the Googlemaps-esque Point A to Point B directions are fictional (or at least not connected in anyway that I could tell) which makes it difficult to actually judge the accuracy of the section.  Many of the things she mentions, however, are accurate.  For example, “here is the Islamic Center of England opposite the Queen’s Arms” (Smith 43).  This is true; along A5 (one of the roads Smith actually mentions), which in one segment is called “shoot up hill” as Smith mentions in NW (372).   She also mentions a school where a headmaster was stabbed which, though not near the A5, was an actual event (Camber).  Smith also mentions the Grand National which is a horse race at the Aintree Racecourse in April, just as she said (Smith 43).  This race, though it does occur in April like she mentions it also occurs in Liverpool (on the complete other side of England than London.  Because some of what she writes about is fictionalized it is difficult to properly see and understand the city.  The inclusion of some accurate aspects of the north west part of London help to give the novel and air of credibility

Though NW does provide glimpses into life in north west London, we must remember that, as the Publisher’s Note states, “[NW] is a work of fiction. …any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.”  Zadie could use elements of the real places and also make huge exaggerations because the book was not intended to be educational or propaganda.  It was meant for entertainment and should not be used for facts.  Reading NW and then claiming to know everything about the north west section of London would be extremely inaccurate as the book only represents one person’s perspective on the area.

Camber, Rebecca. "Philip Lawrence Killer Learco Chindamo Tells for the First Time How He Murdered Head Teacher." Mail Online. Associated Newspapers Ltd., 18 Aug. 2011. Web. 26 Oct. 2013.

Thomas, Philippa. "Zadie Smith: NW." London Fictions. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2013.

 Smith, Zadie. NW. New York: Penguin, 2012. Print.

Willesden Locality Profile. Rep. Wembley Centre for Health and Care, n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2013.