- Penguin Press HC, 416 pp.
Revealed Through the Lives of Four Characters
Cranford, Middlemarch, South Riding. By calling her newest novel NW, Zadie Smith follows in the tradition of other writers, including Mary Gaskell, George Eliot, and Winifred Holtby, who have named the work after the setting. Like its predecessors, NW is an ensemble novel that explores human nature through a microcosm of the world, a technique that has historically appealed to women writers. Jane Austen famously said her work, containable on a “little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory,” was about “four or five families in a country village.”
In this case, the microcosm is not a village in rural England but a postcode in northwest London—the further reaches of that postcode, not the Hampstead that came to be a stand-in for a certain type of literary fiction (dinner-party talk, adultery) in the 1970s and 1980s. In Harold Pinter’s Hampstead-set 1978 play Betrayal, in which a man has an affair with his best friend’s wife, the adulterous couple take a flat in the neighborhood of Kilburn because despite its proximity to Hampstead, they know they’ll never be spotted. NW is all about Kilburn and its environs (Cricklewood, Brondesbury, Willesden)—familiar Zadie Smith territory from White Teeth as well as the author’s home turf.
Like Cranford, Middlemarch, and South Riding, NW is a series of interlocking narratives, but while those earlier works largely depicted the different worlds of different classes, Smith’s novel traces the lives of four thirty-somethings who grew up in the same housing project but have very different adult lives: two women who avoided drugs and most bad decisions and two men who didn’t. There’s outwardly successful Keisha-turned-Natalie, Leah, her white friend, who’s 35 and afraid to tell her attractive Afro-Caribbean husband that she wants to stay 18 forever and not have kids, quick-talking Felix, who might have finally met the right girl and found some stability, and troubled Nathan, once a hottie and athletic hopeful who now lives in squats and on the street.
While their housing project, Caldwell, is imaginary, with units named after philosophers—Bentham, Locke, Russell—the neighborhood, with its intermixed green and grime, is not. En route to see a historic local church, Natalie and Leah tick off what they see. “Nightmare. Kennedy Fried Chicken. Polish Bar and Food. Euphoria Massage. Glad we took the scenic route.” The neigborhood’s proximity to posh Hampstead, with its well-kept Heath and artisanal bakeries, creates an odd mix. Smith points out that her corner of northwest London “is no stranger to the world of letters…sometimes Dickens himself comes this far west and north for a pint or to bury someone. Look, there, on the library carpet between Science Fiction and Local History: a knotted condom filled with sperm.”
More prosaically, Keisha’s mother tells her that Leah almost drowned in a neighborhood pool as a toddler because “they had a guard up the hill, in Hampstead, for them. Nothing for us.” Keisha saved Leah’s life, initiating an interracial friendship that has lingered on, a touch uneasily, into adulthood. Both defeated the odds to make it to university, but while Keisha/Natalie is now a high-powered lawyer with a successful husband and two cute kids and a perfect house, Leah works for a struggling nonprofit. The difference between them is measured in distance from Caldwell: “Leah passes the old estate every day on the walk to the corner shop. She can see it from her backyard. Nat lives just far enough to avoid it.”
Leah is a more interesting and better-drawn character than Nat, who approaches yuppie stereotype and who is featured in the novel’s third section, told in numbered, disjointed snatches of prose with titles like “Angst!” and “Some observations concerning television.” Other sections are narrated more successfully. We learn about Felix through his conversations with others—his new girlfriend, who reminds him of Tupac’s mantra, “Never. Ignorant. Getting. Goals. Accomplished,” his pot-smoking father, reminiscing about the glory days of Black Power, an agoraphobic ex-actress lover he met while working for a film studio—and the narration is as smooth and charismatic as Felix himself. Leah’s section is peopled with voices including that of an apple tree in her backyard (“New blossom, new apples. Same tree? Born and bred. Same streets”), a Madonna (“Spirit of these beech wood and phone boxes…grazing spots and 3D multiplexes. Unruly England”), and epitaphs, which advise her after a secretive medical procedure to “Take-it easy for forty-eight hours/In this terrible sun/Take it easy, Leah Hanwell.” Nathan’s brief section is structured through his (also unlikely) conversation with Natalie.
Smith’s exuberant language is, as usual, more compelling than the plot it narrates, in which poignance sometimes teeters into melodrama. The novel begins when Leah is taken in by a desperate woman, Shar, who comes to her door, a moving storyline that effectively sets up what is both Leah’s difficulty and character strength: despite growing up in Caldwell, she does not make the effort to inure herself as others do, like Natalie, who once represented the indigent but ambitiously switched to more profitable law. Leah and Shar’s unlikely conversation creates room in the novel for the disempowered, as Shar relates her tale of woe, doubtless part scam but also part truth, and runs like a thread through the rest of Leah’s story, as she keeps thinking of, and running into, Shar, who turns out to be connected with Nathan, her girlhood crush.
This situation, and the backstories of the other characters, would be intriguing enough to be the substance of the novel, but Smith fails in confidence and tacks on the drama. Her setups are much more interesting than the violence and destruction she seems to feel necessary to round the stories off. Leah’s and Felix’s stories both contain a death; Natalie’s Achilles heel turns out to be a sexual proclivity that, when exposed, endangers her perfect life; Nathan may be implicated in a crime that affects the lives of all four characters. Ultimately, NW’s overactive plot detracts from the brilliance of Smith’s language, making you hope that next time she has more faith that it is her writing, and not numerous plot twists, that draws readers in.
Fran Bigman is an American living in London, where she is working a PhD in English at the University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on representations of abortion in British culture from 1918 to 1967, and her other interests include contemporary British fiction, dystopian fiction and film, and novels of immigration and migration. Fran’s book reviews have appeared in the “Times Literary Supplement,” “Wasafiri,” Forbes.com, “Words Without Borders,” where she also served as reviews editor, and the “Jewish Quarterly.” She is reviews editor of the website Fiction Uncovered.