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NW by Zadie Smith

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NW by Zadie Smith
© The Penguin Press
The Penguin Press, September 2012

Named after the diverse northwest region of London, Zadie Smith's new novel NW casts a small net through a dense neighborhood, connecting a handful of characters across economic and cultural divides. The novel centers around Keisha and her childhood friend Leah, both of whom have grown up in NW and are growing accustomed to their adult, married lives. Leah is the only white woman working in a lottery-fund distribution center, and through her work is exposed to much of London's less fortunate corners. Keisha, who in college adopted the name Natalie, is a successful barrister and despite her enviable professional progress is dissatisfied with the private life she's formed at home. Told in five stylistically different sections, NW is an ambitious and disjointed novel and one that is surprisingly captivating despite its frustrating composition. Zadie Smith (White Teeth, On Beauty, Changing My Mind) is an exceptionally skilled writer and responsible for some marvelously composed sentences, but stumbles in NW trying to tie together more than she is able.

NW opens with a section of spectacularly good prose that follows Leah after a woman named Shar appears on her doorstep, asking for money to take a cab to the hospital. Shar is a remarkably good grifter, and is able to play Leah's sympathies much to her own advantage. When she first meets Shar, Leah feels an almost spiritual connection:

"Leah is as faithful in her allegiance to this two-mile square of the city as other people are to their families, or their countries. She knows the way people speak around here, that fuckin, around here, is only a rhythm in a sentence. She arranges her face to signify compassion. Shar closes her eyes, nods."

Leah feels deep, sudden sympathy with this woman and eventually gives her the money she requests, unaware that she was actually supporting her drug habit. Thirty pounds poorer, Leah later feels like Shar exposed a dormant personal fault, a seemingly insignificant weakness that has revealed itself to be much more problematic. Is she too soft, too disconnected from her surroundings, both people and place? Leah's husband might think so. She tries to carry on with her life, but is consumed by a complicated sense of shame, as if she's not quite acclimated to her neighborhood as well as she had once thought. She begins to see Shar as she plods through her workdays, almost haunted by their brief encounter.
Leah's clamorous meanderings through NW London are miles beyond a simple hat-tip to James Joyce - Smith has such a command of language here that she's able to transport her readers to the noisy city streets of her neighborhood as creatively and effortlessly as Joyce in Ulysses. Although Smith's raucous sentences lack the deeper significance of Joyce's controlled cacophony, there is an impressive rhythm to this section of NW that will please many readers. Here, Smith is a receptor, transmitting sound and vision into words:

"The window logs Kilburn's skyline. Ungentrified, ungentrifiable. Boom and bust never come here. Here bust is permanent. Empty State Empire, empty Odeon, graffiti-streaked sidings rising and falling like a rickety rollercoaster. Higgledy piggledy rooftops and chimneys, some high, some low, packed tightly, shaken fags in a box."

But once the curtain falls on NW's first act, Smith takes a sharp turn into a new story and a new, less riveting style of writing. Felix, a man from a different corner of NW London, is introduced and Smith follows him for what turns out to be terribly eventful single day. Similar to Shar's character in the novel's first section, Felix forces readers to reflect on Leah's middle-class life and see that despite her frustrations she has things pretty well sorted out. When we first meet him, Felix is still trying to gain his footing and put his drug-using, multiple-partner past behind him. He has his mind set on buying a broken-down car from an online listing with hopes of repairing the vehicle and turning a profit. Later, Felix visits one of the women he's been seeing, intending to tell her that he wants to begin a monogamous relationship with someone else and that she can longer be his girl on the side.
By the time Felix's story closes, something happens that reconnects his plot to Leah's. This would be a fulfilling link if Smith decided to revisit NW's wonderful first section, but instead she veers further away and jumps into the entire life of Keisha, who first met Leah at age four when she saved her from drowning in a swimming pool. Composed of 185 vignettes that each average the length of a page, Smith episodically builds the life of Keisha (later Natalie) in a veritable slideshow of aging. Taken individually, these scenes are taut little snapshots, but after NW's first two threads this manner of writing feels too simple and almost lazy in execution.

When this experimental, 185-chapter section concludes, Smith continues with Natalie's story and barrels through two final segments about Natalie told in more traditional prose. Continuing with Natalie in this way manages to cheapen to effect of NW's miniature chapters: why adopt that format for this specific character, only to abandon it later? Only at the end of the novel does Natalie's thread return to Leah and the story with which Smith began. By the time this happens, it becomes increasingly clear that most of NW is weighted in Natalie's direction, and that the outstanding opening preamble was just establishing a supporting character for a lead not yet introduced. As the novel closes, many of NW's threads seem frayed and superfluous, like a series of unnecessary detours during a surprisingly straight route through Natalie's life.

It feels as if Smith couldn't decide if NW should be about a place or its inhabitants, and instead of making a definitive choice she wrote something that's an incongruous attempt at fulfilling both goals. NW is exceptionally well-written and compulsively readable, but the sum of its parts does not amount to anything nearly as spectacular as the language and rhythm from which the novel is formed.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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