NW is not Zadie Smith’s best. However, it shows a writer at her finest and bravest exploring diverse terrain and experimenting with different methods and vocabularies with which to present those explorations. That makes Smith’s examination of intersecting worlds and lives in the northwest corner of contemporary London a still fascinating if sometimes frustrating read.
NW focuses – as much as the intentionally disjointed storytelling and multiple narrative voices overlaid with a range of stylistic syncopations can be said to focus – on the lives of two women who have known each other since a fateful childhood encounter: red-haired Leah Hanwell, a charitable lottery administrator of Irish descent and Natalie Blake (who selectively abandons her birth name of Keisha), a lawyer of Jamaican descent. Both struggle and flirt with ambition, identity and personal reinvention against a backdrop of societal and economic changes happening, at times very literally, on their doorsteps.
Smith propels the story with varying degrees of success via a carousel of styles and formats from stream of consciousness narration to numbered and labelled lists and paragraphs to even a touch of concrete poetry. In the end, plotlines dangle or simply deflate. What endures for this reader is that the two central characters seem able to pick up their sometimes suspended conversations and relationship, and continue caring for each other through revelations, attempted transformations and missteps. The foundation of their friendship is grounded on a recognition of the essential persons under the layers of time and circumstance. Likewise, this reader will wait for and seek out this author’s future literary transformations, recognizing the essential craft and character at the foundation of whatever she attempts next.
NW by Zadie Smith – review
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