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Northwest of here.

September 21, 2012

Literary darling Zadie Smith’s much anticipated fourth novel, NW, is a curious beast. Fans of Smith’s previous work, which includes the sprawling and brilliant comic sagas White Teeth and On Beauty, may or may not take to the rather experimental new turn she takes in her latest work. NW is a mixed bag of stylistic tricks, a stream-of-consciousness trip through modern London that jumps between manic staccato and meandering internal monologue with mixed results.

In the Northwest corner of one of the world’s most iconic cities, life has dealt mixed hands to four 30-somethings who grew up on the Caldwell council estate: Leah works for a nonprofit and doesn’t know how to tell her husband, Michel, that she doesn’t want children; Leah’s childhood best friend, Natalie, is a lawyer earning big bucks and serving heirloom tomato salads at her dinner parties; Felix has overcome a drug problem and seeks a better life with his new girlfriend, Grace; Nathan, Leah’s childhood crush, wanders the streets smoking weed and selling travelcards at the local tube station.

Smith squeezes the thoughts and experiences of these four characters into five sections, each with a very different style. What unites these sections—and, indeed, what seems to tie the novel together—is a stream-of-consciousness approach, an attempted narrative immersion that doesn’t quite work.

We begin with Leah, who opens her front door only to falls for a scam: a neighbour pretends her mother has been rushed to hospital, and convinces Leah to hand over the cash for a cab fare.

So begins a skittering journey through the next few weeks of Leah’s life, and her attendant insecurities, memories, and anxieties. Chief among these is the increasing sense of disconnection she feels from Natalie, who has left her Caldwell roots far behind her (including changing her name—at school, she was Keisha) in a way that Leah has not. It isn’t so much jealousy that Leah feels, but anger at the audacity of her friend’s transformation, and the frisson of disinterest and irritation that lurks beneath their every exchange.

It isn’t until we reach Natalie’s section of the book that we come to understand the myth of her reinvention. While she isn’t a particularly likeable character, she’s certainly the best developed of Smith’s foursome. In a series of short, headed paragraphs that begin in early childhood and culminate in the unhappy present of her comfortable middle-class life, Smith reveals the Keisha who lives behind Natalie’s collected exterior—a woman who, even as a teenager, felt an odd sense of internal emptiness, ‘wondering whether she herself in fact had any personality at all or was in truth only the accumulation and reflection of all the things she had read in books and seen on television’.

In between Leah and Natalie we meet Felix, whose unfortunate destiny we discover before we meet him on what is the final day of his life—a life that, ironically, seems more content and stable than anyone else’s in the novel, despite his past brushes with drugs and the law. Felix is not known to Leah, Natalie, or Nathan, but his fate will connect them all.

The only character whose consciousness we are not privy to—for reasons that become clear—is Nathan, whom we know only from the glimpses and remembered fragments we’re afforded in Leah’s and Natalie’s sections. Nathan is the one who has not made it—when Leah sees him on the high road occasionally (‘Now missing a tooth here and there and there. Devastated eyes. What should be white is yellow.’), she ‘ducks into a shop, or crosses, or gets on a bus’.

In her study of these four disparate characters from a single place, Smith has, to her credit, created an honest and complex portrait of urban society, and those who fall between its cracks (Felix, Nathan) versus those who claw their way free (Leah, Natalie), although this comes at a cost. Queuing behind a woman ‘emptying her pockets onto the counter, offering to relinquish this and that item’ at her local supermarket, Natalie ‘had completely forgotten what it was like to be poor. It was a language she’d stopped being able to speak, or even to understand’.

Disappointingly, it’s the style of the book that lessens its impact. Smith’s writerly sleights of hand—which include a passage written as stage directions, a page of thought fragments in the shape of a tree, and a general disregard for quotation marks—often feel self-conscious and fanciful. Ultimately, they thwart Smith’s desire (or what I assume is her desire) to submerge the reader in the hearts and minds of her characters, to give a true and visceral sense of their lives. Smith’s wordplay and fragmented internal monologues and commentaries have the opposite effect, keeping her audience at a remove that dilutes the powerful themes at the story’s centre.

But NW still has much to offer, and much to say. It might be set entirely in the postcode of its title, but it’s not just a London novel. It’s a novel of the modern city, and the modern afflictions that crowd our lives within it: the romantic complications, financial struggles, social mores, and lingering dissatisfactions over whether our chosen paths are the right ones after all. Natalie, Leah, Felix, and Nathan embody an experience familiar to so many of us—the destiny pressed upon you by your class and your beginnings, and the adventure and consequences of your attempted escape from them.

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