“NW” by Zadie Smith / Penguin Press, 400 pages
North-West London (NW) is home to Zadie Smith, and has been featured in all of her books. In her new novel, “NW,” it’s once again put under a magnifying glass.
Like her excellent debut, “White Teeth,” Smith likes to talk about race, class, and identity, through good, yet often flawed characters who are rich and poor, well educated and ignorant. You believe in the characters because of their contradictions. They live double lives, lie to themselves and one another, mean well, and want more than they can grasp. The arc of their lives is unseen to them, and is witnessed and judged by their friends and neighbors.
“NW” is the story of Leah and Natalie. Best friends, school mates, neighbors and city dwellers. We get glimpses of Leah and Natalie as young, inseparable friends, through college, traversing NW London into adulthood and in spite of overprotective parents, opposing interests, and themselves. Alone and together they are free spirits, prone to tuning out the world with gossip, drugs, and philosophy. It’s around men when they become actors, here they are expected to want and have children. They are Natalie Blake, the determined lawyer, and Leah Hanwell, the socially conscious Grant Provider.
Leah and Natalie are uncomfortable in their own skin, both want to be better, and envy some part of the other. One counts pennies and feels lessened by it, one feels the guilt of having too much, they both notice the city and it’s randomness. They are both confronted by the past, affected by random moments they are forced to reconcile. They talk about the differences between a moment and an instant, and label the collection of moments colliding as the “Fullness of Time”.
Zadie Smith begins “NW” in a stream of consciousness, and adds her unique poetry to every page. Like David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Lethem, she’s a deconstructionist. Smith is subverting the expectations of what a novel can be, and do. Her peripheral characters are important, and create more stories within stories. The structure of “NW” makes it difficult. Conversations end abruptly and do not resolve, perspective shifts, and long portions forgo plot to wonder.”NW” is a novel of ideas, with more questions than solutions.
There will not be another book like this written until the next Zadie Smith novel, a novel that challenges you to notice. Do yourself a favor and give it a try.