Review: NW by Zadie Smith

NW by Zadie Smith. 2012. $32. 294 pp. (Thanks to Hamish Hamilton for a review copy of this work.)

NW by Zadie Smith. 2012. $32. 294 pp. (Thanks to Hamish Hamilton for a review copy of this work.)

Zadie Smith’s new novel, NW, takes its name from the postal code for northwest London where the novel is set, and where Smith herself grew up. This part of London is a fragmented world, one where stark differences define the landscape and the lives of its inhabitants  — poverty against riches, black against white, law school graduates against crack-addicted criminals. The writing here, virtuosic as ever, reflects this fragmentation. It paints an off-kilter and open-ended portrait of its two protagonists, Keisha/Natalie Blake and Leah Hanwell, as they struggle to find success and happiness without knowing exactly what either of these are.

The narrative follows these two girls from birth into their mid-thirties, when these women are themselves facing the decision of whether to have children of their own. As children they are best friends, but as they age their divergent personalities and social circumstances take them in different directions.

Keisha, who changes her name to Natalie after high school in order to better fit into the upper-class world she enters via law school and a rich husband, is a high-achiever who pulls herself from the margins of London into its chic centre, only to wonder whether she wants to be there at all.

Leah is a more freewheeling person and follows the opposite path in many ways. While she too has a university education, instead of leveraging it for all the social and financial capital it’s worth, she works at a job in her home neighbourhood that doesn’t require her to have a degree. Indeed, she’s the only person there who has one. And unlike Natalie, whose romantic life develops along conservative lines, Leah’s sexual world is more chaotic and experimental, full of flings and lust and anal sex. In this way, the two women reflect two fundamental approaches to life on the socioeconomic edge: hunker down and work your ass off for a “good future,” or take things as they come and avoid the anxieties about the future by enjoying life in the present.

Yet despite these divergent life trajectories, the women find themselves facing remarkably similar existential problems as they exit youth and approach their years of critical fertility. Both are anxious about the prospect of children and about their ticking biological clocks. Both find themselves in good circumstances by common standards — they have loving partners, and while Leah isn’t as wealthy as Natalie, she and her husband enjoy a decent standard of living.

And yet they both find themselves railing against the passage of time, and finding life to be a confusing series of events that moves along too fast. By her early thirties Natalie has “made it” in life, but all the same she has little idea of who she is and what she really wants. Leah is also facing an existential crisis, and wonders why it is that people like her and Natalie should lead successful lives while childhood friends should wind up as drug-addled street thugs.

If this all strikes you as true to life but lacking the typical trappings of a story — namely, protagonists with clear problems who are altered by the forces against which they struggle until their problems are resolved for better or worse — you’d be right. NW displays all the anxieties of modern society — just like its protagonists, who experience life as an ambiguous, open-ended business, the story in Smith’s latest effort equally lacks forward momentum. This is because the characters who populate this pocket of London don’t know where forward is; their world is disorienting. As soon as they get where they’re going (often following normative pathways like graduating from law school or getting married), they find they’re not sure they even want the benefits they’re set to reap. And never mind what they’re striving for — just exactly who are they, anyway? And what’s this existence all for, and why is it so unfair, and why is time so unrelenting? Yes, NW is that kind of book.

And in that respect it’s brilliant. If you’re looking for 300 pages of incisive commentary on the psychological problems plaguing contemporary urbanites who grew up in economically depressed neighbourhoods, this is it. But don’t expect closure, don’t wait for build-ups to produce payoffs. Entire subplots are literally dead ends — the subprotagonists simply die, never claiming an important place in the narrative or contributing to the main story in any supratangential fashion (even if a fifth of the book is devoted to them).

Such narrative nebulae notwithstanding, NW is an entertaining and moving book. Keisha and Leah are incredibly well-drawn, and the unusual techniques Smith uses to bring them to life (including a fair bit of concrete poetry) are compelling and innovative.

That being said, at times Smith’s experimentation goes off the rails and staggers toward opacity. The first 85 pages (in the section entitled “Visitation”) are the worst offender in this regard. Here readers face an uphill battle against unattributed dialogue, conversations starting mid-sentence, and a deluge of fragments. But those intrepid readers who make it into the novel’s second section will be rewarded for their labours with writing that remains edgy while having the added feature of being comprehensible. The remainder of the book is a pleasure to read, and powerfully animates a corner of London heretofore neglected in literature in a style that is challenging but not burdensome.

The highlight of NW comes in the second half, in a section entitled “Host,” which comprises 185 numbered vignettes spanning 110 pages. These short pieces, which chronicle the life of Keisha Blake from birth to childbearing to marital meltdown, operate like a photo album. As they are generally less than a page long, each is like a snapshot of a moment in time — 185 windows onto key experiences in a young woman’s life. This section, to speak plainly, kicks ass. It’s incisive, heartfelt, funny, and distinctive. Indeed, this part of the novel is what elicited many readers’ interest in NW in the first place, as it was featured in condensed form in The New Yorker in July 2012, and is an exceptional stand-alone piece that figures among the best published by the magazine in recent years.

“Host” is all the more a treat to be savoured as the rest of the book is composed in very different styles, the whole text being marked by a haphazard eclecticism. Indeed, in an interview Smith noted NW was written without a plan and was conceived “as a collection of found items.” This is consonant with the reading experience, which lacks the coherence expected in a novel, and instead comes across as an impeccably drawn series of short pieces on Keisha and Leah’s inner lives.

In the end, NW is a difficult work to pin down. Readers who make it to the end will likely be amazed, frustrated, touched, and disappointed all at once. For those devoted to language and how form and sentence structure can be reconfigured to chart the unexplored corners of experience, NW is a lesson you can’t afford to skip. Anyone concerned with the struggle of women to make sense of their professional, sexual, and familial lives on the margins of a big city like London will want to pick this book up immediately. Those, on the other hand, who are expecting the familiar novelistic package of rising action-climax-denouement might want to stick to White Teeth.

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