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Leah's life through 37 and Shar

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The number 37 and Leah Hanwell are introduced at the beginning of NW and resurface throughout it. Leah probably learned about the number 37 from her friend Natalie who said, “The number 37 has a magic about it, we’re compelled toward it. Websites are dedicated to the phenomenon. The imagined houses found in cinema, fiction, painting, and poetry-almost always 37. Asked to choose a number at random: almost always 37. Watch for 37, the girl said, in our lotteries, our game-shows, and our dreams and jokes, and Leah did, and Leah still does.” (46) This quote conveys that the number 37 has a “magical” significance, and is somehow part of the underlining structure of society. The number 37 stays in Leah’s subconscious throughout NW and she notes whenever she sees it.

Leah has many chance meetings with an old schoolmate named Shar. (5) After these encounters, like the number 37, Shar stays in Leah’s subconscious. Shar knocks on Leah’s door one day asking for money. Leah lends Shar money, and Shar promises to pay her back. After that incident, Leah starts to have multiple chance encounters with Shar, and Shar doesn’t pay her back.

Leah also encounters photos of Shar by accident. When Leah goes to the pharmacy to pick up her photos, she is given Shar’s photos instead. Leah’s boyfriend Michel is “not surprised” by this, insisting that NW is a “small place.” (108) This leaves Leah annoyed by Michel’s “perverse refusal to be either amazed or surprised” (108) by the coincidence. Now that Leah has become conscious of Shar, she sees her everywhere and makes note of it in the same way that she does with the number 37.

It is not clarified whether or not the number 37 is a phenomenon, or just in Leah’s head. Textually there are multiple chapters entitled “37” that appear randomly in the first quarter of the book. In the last half of the book, when the writing goes into numbered sections, the section number 37 is skipped and goes onto 38, leaving nothing. (226) The number 37 is occasionally placed within the text. For example in a description of Leah walking in the rain, “One hand gripping an inadequate umbrella and rain trickling down her right sleeve. Number 37. She flicks through the leaflets quickly like a good girl at a post-box Checking the postage is sound before pushing them through.” (63) Smith’s randomness in the placement of the number 37 possibly reflects that the number doesn’t mean anything, that Leah’s encounters with Shar are by chance, and that Leah’s life in general has no real order or meaning.

To Leah it is possible that the number 37 represents the hope that there is meaning in her life. The possibility that people are attracted to a seemingly unimportant number suggests a kind of order to the universe. Although, there is no pattern in the way the number 37 is placed in the novel, Leah’s meetings with Shar seem to be improbably in their frequency and format. It is possible that Smith doesn’t propose a specific answer to the question of order because she and her characters cannot answer it. Correspondingly, when Leah contemplates Shar she thinks, “like a riddle in a dream there it no answer” (109) and at the end of the book Leah says, “I just don’t understand why I have this life.”(399) Neither of these quotes answers whether or not Leah’s life is ordered and meaningful, they only ask “why?”

Smith, Zadie. NW. New York: The Penguin Press, 2012.