Zadie Smith writes about northwest London with the kind of familiarity, fondness and clear-eyed criticism with which we might write about our own friends and family members. She knows and understands the neighborhood intimately, as she has shown previously in her wildly praised debut novel WHITE TEETH, as well as in parts of her other novels. She sees this gritty, diverse and often misunderstood area of London in all its complexity and humanity, and writes about it with ease and compassion.
"Smith is a novelist after all, not (only) an essayist, and so she does place fictional characters in this richly described setting.... [T]he portrait Smith creates, although hardly tidy or unified, nevertheless captures northwest London in a way that is entirely authentic, singular and true."
A perfect example occurs early in the book, when Smith follows a set of Google Maps walking directions from point A to point B through the city with a very different sort of walking tour: "From A to B redux: Sweet stink of the hookah, couscous, kebab, exhaust fumes of a bus deadlock…. Leaflets, call abroad 4 less, learn English, eyebrow wax, Falun Gong, have you accepted Jesus as your personal call plan? Everybody loves fried chicken. Everybody."
This kind of improvisational riff on the city is exciting and dynamic to read, and they occur throughout the novel --- viewing this neighborhood through the lens of the author, and her characters are in many ways the most satisfying and stimulating aspect of NW. Smith is a novelist after all, not (only) an essayist, and so she does place fictional characters in this richly described setting. Here character and theme are closely aligned, as spelled out more or less explicitly near the novel's end, when Leah Hanwell comments to her childhood friend Natalie, "I just don't understand why I have this life.... You, me, all of us. Why that girl and not us. Why that poor bastard on Albert Road. It just doesn't make sense to me." Natalie responds clearly and coolly in the voice of the barrister she's become: "This is one of the things you learn in a courtroom: people generally get what they deserve."
Whether or not Natalie's statement is accurate is one of the defining questions of Smith's novel. Leah (who is white) and Natalie (who is black and who was known by a different name when they were children) have done quite well for themselves since childhood. However, an unexpected and unwanted encounter with two other former classmates near the novel's opening causes both women, now in their early 30s, to question their own place in the world, their own origins, and what they reveal or obscure.
NW is a complicated novel, broken into four major parts, one of which is divided into nearly 200 mini-chapters. It follows the points of view of several major and minor characters, and it often seems to drop threads of plot or character without resolving them. It frequently utilizes non-narrative forms to contribute to its overall narratives. At times, it can seem fragmented, even messy, as if those cacophonous voices that jostle for attention on the northwest London streets are on the page, vying for the attention of both the author and the reader. But the portrait Smith creates, although hardly tidy or unified, nevertheless captures northwest London in a way that is entirely authentic, singular and true.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on September 13, 2012