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The Representations of NW

mmanzone's picture

The Representations of NW

While reading NW something didn’t ring true.  The story did not feel real; it was too exaggerated.  Having never been to the area, however, I accepted the descriptions of the people and places to be realistic depictions.  I accepted Willesden as an area where whites are the minority, everyone smokes and most people are from modest backgrounds.  But I realized that these characteristics are representational.  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 different picture of the citizens of Willesden.

Though many people would like to believe that statistics are always correct and reliable, the fact of the matter is: statistical studies can be incredibly flawed as well.  There can be issues ensuring everyone is included once and only once and in some cases questions are worded poorly making it unclear how to respond.  These inherent flaws with statistics make them just as representational as realistic fiction.  They may not be completely accurate but they give those analyzing them ideas as to what something might actually be like.

The characters that Zadie Smith writes about depict a wide 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 Smith’s presentation of Willesden was to be a reflection of the statistics, be white.  There is, however, only one who is known to be white, Leah.  Smith also gives a different portrayal 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 56); Felix smokes when looking at the car (149); Natalie and Nathan smoke together when she is having her mental breakdown (367).  The way Smith’s characters talk about the area make it seem that many people in that area struggle to get by, and though some do, the statistics make it seem much lower than Smith’s depiction.  The world of north west London that Smith illustrates seems to be a much harsher and unforgiving environment than the statistics would lead one to believe, which serves her story well as it gives it more drama and a more interesting setting.

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.”  Smith could use elements of the real places and also make huge exaggerations because the book was not intended to be educational or propaganda.  It cannot be said with certainty why Smith’s representation of north west London and Willesden is so different from the one presented by statistics, without directly asking her.  Is it because it helped to move the plot of the story she wanted to tell? Is it because it made the story more interesting?  Is it because she grew up there and her view of the area would be very much like Natalie and Leah’s?  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.

Both realistic fiction and statistics provide outlets to represent something.  In the case of Zadie Smith and the report on public health, characteristics of north west London and Willesden specifically are represented, but in very different ways.  Smith writes about, perhaps, the Willesden she saw as a child when she was growing up there while the study gives an idea of what the population may have looked like in 2012.  Both, however, are representations and can be believed but should not be thought of as the definition of life in the north western area of London.

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

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