It’s been seven years since Zadie Smith’s last novel, On Beauty, and it’s fair to say that her fans are excited about NW. This highly anticipated novel has many qualities associated with this talented young British novelist, including a strong sense of place, an eye for diversity and an ear for dialogue, but this ambitious work unfolds in an unconventional manner that’s more Virginia Woolf than E.M. Forster.
NW is set in Smith’s home turf of northwest London, in and around the Caldwell Housing Estates. The neighborhood is a patchwork of British urban diversity—African, Jamaican and Irish; Pentecostal and Rastafarian—and home to four childhood friends, Leah, Natalie, Nathan and Felix. Now adults, they live only streets apart, though due to varying degrees of ambition, desire and luck, they might as well inhabit different worlds. That is, until the afternoon a stranger comes to Leah’s door begging for help, launching a chain of events that pulls the four of them together again.
The heart of the book is the friendship between Natalie and Leah, who met when Natalie saved Leah from drowning, pulling her out of the kiddie pool by her red braids. Though both girls aspired to leave the Estate, their lives took different directions. Natalie changed her name from Keisha, went to college and then law school, and married an Italian-Caribbean money manager. Leah also attended college and married a Frenchman from Marseille by way of Morocco, but their economic situation is not nearly so comfortable. The women’s friendship is marked by unspoken conflicts over money, children and jobs, yet their shared roots bind them indivisibly. The young men from the Estate have less luck. Felix struggles to maintain sobriety and a steady job as a mechanic, while Nathan, the bad boy of the neighborhood, sinks deeper and deeper into a thug life as a dealer and a pimp.
Rather than move from point A to B, the action in NW dips, shifts and changes direction, beginning with Leah and Natalie as married adults, then following Felix for a single day. In the longest segment of the book, a series of brief vignettes (some just a single paragraph or a few sentences) trace Natalie’s life from childhood to the present, culminating in an intense encounter with Nathan that reveals how little—and yet, how much—they have in common.
The effect is more collage than group portrait, but despite the novel’s unconventional mode of storytelling, NW takes place in familiar Smith territory—an urban environment filled with articulate, richly drawn and often very funny characters. Toward the end of the novel, Leah asks her friend why they were able to move out of the Estate when so many others were dragged down. Though Natalie has an answer, the question lingers. In NW, Smith offers a robust novel bursting with life: a timely exploration of money, morals, class and authenticity that asks if we are ever truly the sole authors of our own fate.