NW by Zadie Smith: A review

Zadie Smith employs a non-traditional format and punctuation in telling this story, something that is almost guaranteed to turn me off immediately. I just find it annoying. And yet, several pages into this book, as I got into the flow of the story and of the language of northwest London, suddenly it didn't really matter any more. 

Smith uses a stream of consciousness technique in telling the tangled stories of Leah and Keisha/Natalie, as well as Felix and Nathan. Indeed, the reader reflects, how else could these stories be told?

And so we have these four people who were connected in childhood and whose lives are now tangential, sometimes touching, sometimes intertwined in the small community that is NW. 

The main story here, though, is the story of a city, a complicated place where people live cheek-by-jowl and yet are in their own worlds. It is a place that will seem very familiar to urban dwellers everywhere, I think. We follow the characters from their private homes - flats - to public parks, to workplaces, walking the streets, navigating the roundabouts, taking the Tube. This is modern-day London. It is a fascinating place and the strongest character in this tale.

Smith's focus among her human characters is primarily on Leah and Keisha/Natalie. (As a child she was Keisha; as an adult, she changed her name to Natalie.) They are now thirty-somethings, but they are best friends from childhood, a childhood spent on the council estate of Caldwell. Their lives are bound together forever by an incident in that childhood. Now they are trying to make their way through adulthood in a way that brings them happiness.

On the outside, they both seem successful. Natalie is a lawyer, married to a rich banker, mother to two kids and seemingly living the good life. Leah has a worthwhile job dispensing money to charities and is married to a beautiful man who adores her and who craves children with his beloved wife. 

We soon learn though that Leah has a dark secret. She doesn't want children, and she has taken steps to ensure that there won't be any, a fact of which she has not informed her husband. 

Natalie, too, is unfulfilled by her seemingly perfect life. In pursuit of fulfillment, she engages in some extremely risky sexual behavior, again without informing her husband.

The ancillary characters, also from Caldwell, Felix and Nathan, have roles to play in this story, too. 

Felix has had a checkered employment history, but now seems to have settled into work as a mechanic. He has a woman in his life whom he cares for and who cares for him. He seems on his way to a stable relationship and a stable and successful life. 

Nathan is just the opposite. He is living on the streets and seems incapable of pulling himself out of the downward spiral his life has taken. 

The amazing thing about this book for me was the language and the way it evokes the spirit of a city that is constantly changing as waves of immigrants attempt to make lives for themselves on its streets. It is a city that reinvents itself from day to day and year to year and yet its essential character seems unchanging. A resident from twenty years ago, fifty years ago, would still recognize the old girl in her new guise. And all of that is there in the language.

I had not read any of Zadie Smith's work before, other than an essay here and there, so I have nothing with which to compare it. I don't know if this is the way that she usually writes, but I found her prose lyrical, magical even. And yet...

And yet, in the end, the book was ultimately unsatisfying. We are left to ponder the randomness of fate and how Leah and Natalie have come to the circumstances in which they find themselves. What is their way forward? It's very unclear from the murkily over-dramatic ending. Maybe a bit more time given to exploring motivation and laying some emotional groundwork for the drama would have given the reader more of a feeling of resolution at the end.

Nevertheless, Zadie Smith has an amazing ear for language and for dialogue and she is able to communicate a sense of place and a sense of the rhythm of the city's streets that make for some truly unforgettable scenes. I look forward to reading more of her work. 


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