NW Zadie Smith
Penguin Press, 2012
What does it mean to be from a place? How does it shape us, and how does it matter? In Zadie Smith's newest novel NW, we are immersed in the lives of Keisha Blake, Leah Hanwell, and Felix Cooper, raised in the Caldwell housing estate in Northwest London. Keisha worked all her life to leave the crowding and deprivation of the estate behind and become Natalie Blake, barrister. Yet when she finally "arrives," Natalie is increasingly unhappy and goes out in search of something to fill her emptiness. Natalie's childhood friend Leah has tried on many different personalities before settling down with an adequate job and lovely husband, but has never gained a true sense of direction, and is particularly incapable of committing to motherhood. Felix just wants to stay clean and start over with the new love of his life, but pays a terrible price when he attempts to make a break with the past. NW is a study of identity and community, the drive to escape the trappings of one's roots, the challenges in attempting to do so, and the consequences of success and failure.
I've always loved how Zadie Smith captures and conveys the nuances of her worlds and characters: in White Teeth, the energy and music and language of immigrant-English youth culture; in On Beauty, the social and political dynamics of academia. Smith brings her keen eye and ear to the characters and neighborhoods of NW, and at its best, such as in a dinner party conversation or in this vivid description of a shopping neighborhood, her writing sparkles with both local detail and a riff and rhythm that begs the words to be read aloud:
From A to B redux:
Sweet stink of the hookah, couscous, kebab, exhaust fumes of a bus deadlock. 98, 16,32, standing room only- quicker to walk. Escapees from St. Mary's, Paddington: expectant father smoking, old lady wheeling herself in a wheelchair smoking, die-hard holding urine sack, blood sack, smoking. Everybody loves fags. Everybody.Other aspects of NW were more challenging. Smith's style often varied sharply from chapter to chapter, or section to section, which usually made for exciting reading, but sometimes felt disconnected and occasionally made the story hard to follow. The larger issue for me was the overall structure of the book and what the characters are meant to mean to us and to each other: while Natalie and Leah are tied through lifelong friendship, either one's connection to Felix wasn't clear until the end, creating the distracting sensation that his story floats, isolated, in the middle of the novel.
The conclusion pulled their stories together, though in terms of both plot and character, it struck me as a bit underwhelming. As a whole, though, it was a good read with a message worth considering. Smith seems to suggest that "who we are" and "where we belong" are complicated states, at once fluid and fixed, both relative and absolute. Making it out of a neighborhood or growing into adulthood can only partly transform who we become: the places of our pasts will always occupy some essential part of us, keeping us from ever truly belonging anywhere else, even while it is impossible to fully return.
I purchased my copy of NW from Powell's.