'NW': Zadie Smith's kaleidoscopic novel of London
Zadie Smith's new novel, "NW," braids together the stories of several characters as their lives converge and collide in the northwest precincts of contemporary London.
Special to The Seattle Times
by Zadie Smith
Penguin Press, 401 pp., $26.95
The London depicted in Zadie Smith's fidgety, kaleidoscopic new novel, "NW," is not the dazzlingly globalized and gracious one visitors to this teeming city would have experienced during the recent Summer Games, when cheery, pink-vested Olympics workers greeted foreign eventgoers at Tube stations with offers of help in reaching venues.
Smith's grittier, hyperlocal London is centered in the northwest part of town, the "NW" of the book's title, an area that encompasses its own breathtaking diversity of humanity and accents, including the working-class white and Jamaican project dwellers she's most concerned with here.
"NW" tells the interwoven story of four youngish adults, Leah, Natalie, Nathan and Felix, who grew up in the council estates, or subsidized apartments, located there. In them we see the hopes and struggles of lower-income kids and bear witness to the capricious nature of fate, as some move on to more prosperous lives and some just bump along.
Smith, whose previous novels "On Beauty" and "White Teeth" also tackle matters of race, gender, class and culture, focuses her laserlike gaze and gets similar results in this moving novel.
Take the story of Leah, a quiet white woman living with her beautiful black man Michel, who lets a panicked stranger named Shar in the house one day — only to be swindled by her. Turns out the stranger and Leah went to the same school. They came from the same economic class. In fact, Leah still lives in the area where she grew up, albeit in a nicer place.
"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," Smith writes. When someone whose accent signifies she's from the old hood shows up needing help, of course she lets her in.
But where Leah's life is seemingly on an upward trajectory, Shar is pure trouble. Hauntingly, Shar keeps crossing paths with Leah, reminding her in a perverse way of how close their circumstances really are.
Or take Natalie, an educated black woman with kids and a husband who's a banker. She's a barrister, a legal representative in the lower courts. Seems like she has it all. But like Leah, her story of economic uplift, of domestic bliss, is not what it seems.
"Ambitious as she was, she was still a NW girl at heart," Smith tells us in one particular scene, but the point applies to Natalie's life more generally.
The premise that you can't go home again isn't entirely true for these characters. Memories pull you back. Sympathy for old acquaintances that have chosen the wrong path pulls you back. You can forget the names of kids you played with back in the day, but you can't diminish the imprint of those experiences on your soul.
Some will not approve of Smith's use of a wildly deconstructed style. "NW" is full of fleeting chapters, dialogue in lowercase type, even text-message streams riddled with the sort of typos and corrections one makes when trying to tap quickly on a touch-screen keyboard. The novel feels messy and unresolved.
But that's the urban condition. Smith evokes a London that moves at the blistering speed of cyberchat in one moment, and as dopily as an all-night drug high the next. Every moment presents a new chance to do something great, or make a decision you might regret for the rest of your life.
It's no wonder people embrace the cold comfort and ugly permanence of those council flats.