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NW by Zadie Smith

Published by Penguin Press on September 4, 2012 

The primary characters in Zadie Smith’s new novel -- residents of North West London, from which the title derives -- are dissected and analyzed, or more often skewered, as Smith lays bare their hypocrisies, ambitions, facades, insecurities, prejudices, and fears.  The four central characters stand on different rungs of the social ladder.  The impact of class and social identity on relationships is the novel’s central theme, why some people rise above their beginnings and others don’t is the central question, but -- setting aside those social issues -- I enjoyed NW for the portrait it paints of troubled individuals coming to terms with their changing lives.

Leah Hanwell, 35, is married to an African named Michel.  Leah has a love/hate relationship with Michel, and also with her friend Natalie (formerly Keisha), a barrister whose upward mobility (assisted by marriage to a prosperous money manager) has eluded her childhood friends.  Just as J-Lo tried some years ago to convince her audience that she was still “Jenny from the block,” Natalie is experiencing something of an identity crisis.  Having shed the name Keisha, she still clings to her past, at least to Leah, whose attendance at Natalie’s posh parties seems designed to contrast Natalie’s humble beginnings to her current status.  Although Leah has done well for herself, earning a degree and finding employment with a nonprofit, she remains tongue-tied in the company of educated professionals (Natalie invites Leah to tell stories and then gladly tells them for her) and is embarrassed by Michel’s sincerity (but only when they are in public).  Leah also seems envious of and disquieted by Natalie’s children.

A couple of lesser characters haven’t made the same progress as Natalie and Leah.  Nathan Bogle, the recipient of Leah’s childhood crush, is mired in a slang-filled, weed-smoking life, a life on the streets that is dedicated solely to survival.  His role in the novel is to teach Natalie that she knows nothing about his social class despite attending the same school when they were both ten.  Nathan knows Natalie has “made it” because she can squander her tears on something as insignificant as a distressed marriage; she has left more fundamental worries behind.  Yet for all her success and despite Nathan’s complaint that she is needlessly self-pitying, Natalie feels trapped by her circumstances.  Her desperate sadness motivates foolish behavior.

Positioned somewhere between Nathan and Leah on the ladder of success is Felix Cooper, whose Jamaican father lives in the West End.  Felix craves the freedom of a better life in the North West with Grace (half Jamaican, half Nigerian), who wants to free him of his “negative energy.”  While interesting and well written, Felix’s story seems out of place, having only a tangential connection to the rest of the novel.

Readers who cannot abide unconventional writing might dislike NW.  Each of the novel’s sections is written in a different style.  Dialog is often (but not always) set apart in condensed paragraphs; in the first section, quotation marks are nonexistent.  Sentences, like the thoughts they reflect, are sometimes incomplete or scattered.  One passage is written as free-form poetry; another as an online chat.  The largest chunk of the novel is written as a series of vignettes, scenes that deftly sketch out Leah’s and Natalie’s lives from their childhood to the present.  One section follows Natalie as she takes a long walk through the North West.  It is divided into subsections (“Hampstead to Archway”) like a guide to a walking tour.  I enjoyed the different styles -- they aren’t particularly daring and they don’t make the novel inaccessible -- but readers who favor a straightforward narrative might be put off by the jarring changes in format.

As we have come to expect from Zadie Smith, much of the story is wryly amusing, if not laugh-out-loud funny.  Her description of “marriage as the art of invidious comparison” is one of many sly observations I admired.  Smith’s prose is as graceful and unpredictable as a tumbleweed.  The pace is relaxed, not slow but unhurried.  In a good way, the story is slightly meandering.  Smith takes her time, developing the characters and their surroundings bit by bit until it all becomes real.

I suspect that readers who dislike Jonathan Franzen’s most recent novels will dislike NW for the same reasons:  there isn’t much of a plot and the characters aren’t always likable (although Smith’s characters aren’t as determinedly self-centered as Franzen’s).  Both writers strive to say something about society at large by focusing on smaller segments, families and friends who are defined by geography and class.  Readers who believe that good writing often illuminates the world as it exists, not as we want it to be, that it is just as important to understand flaws as perfection, will find much to admire in Smith’s surgical exploration of characters struggling to come to grips with their changing lives.


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