A boldly Joycean appropriation, fortunately not so difficult of entry as its great model Like Zadie Smith s much-acclaimed predecessor White Teeth (2000), NW is an urban epic. Read more...
A boldly Joycean appropriation, fortunately not so difficult of entry as its great model Like Zadie Smith s much-acclaimed predecessor White Teeth (2000), NW is an urban epic. --Joyce Carol Oates, The New York Review of Books
This is the story of a city.
The northwest corner of a city. Here you ll find guests and hosts, those with power and those without it, people who live somewhere special and others who live nowhere at all. And many people in between.
Every city is like this. Cheek-by-jowl living. Separate worlds.
And then there are the visitations: the rare times a stranger crosses a threshold without permission or warning, causing a disruption in the whole system. Like the April afternoon a woman came to Leah Hanwell s door, seeking help, disturbing the peace, forcing Leah out of her isolation
Zadie Smith s brilliant tragi-comic new novel follows four Londoners - Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan as they try to make adult lives outside of Caldwell, the council estate of their childhood. From private houses to public parks, at work and at play, their London is a complicated place, as beautiful as it is brutal, where the thoroughfares hide the back alleys and taking the high road can sometimes lead you to a dead end.
Depicting the modern urban zone familiar to town-dwellers everywhere Zadie Smith s NW is a quietly devastating novel of encounters, mercurial and vital, like the city itself.
Zadie Smith s newest novel, Swing Time, will be published by Penguin Press in November 2016."
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-09-10
- Reviewer: Staff
The reader first meets Leah Hanwell at her most vulnerable (some might say gullible): at home, when the doorbell rings and in tumbles a desperate, unknown but not unfamiliar woman, pleading for money, which Leah provides. Although this incident soon fades into an awkward anecdote shared later at awkward gatherings, it introduces the framework of Smith's (White Teeth) excellent and captivating new novel, in which the lines dividing neighbors from strangers are not always clear or permanent. The book takes place in NW London, where characters intersect and circumvent one another's lives and, in the process, expose their ethnic distinctions and class transformations, their relationships and their secrets. Leah's childhood best friend Natalie Blake (formerly Keisha Blake) eventually becomes the primary focus and the contrast between the two women allows for some of the book's most compelling insights, namely the inevitability of vs. the disinterest in becoming a mother, which Natalie has done and Leah decisively has not. The book's middle section introduces Felix Cooper, a friend of neither woman, but whose fate will affect them both. Smith's masterful ability to suspend all these bits and parts in the amber which is London refracts light, history, and the humane beauty of seeing everything at once. Agent: Georgia Garrett, Rogers, Coleridge and White. (Sept. 4)
Zadie Smith's shifting, ambitious slice of London life
It’s been seven years since Zadie Smith’s last novel, On Beauty, and it’s fair to say that her fans are excited about NW. This highly anticipated novel has many qualities associated with this talented young British novelist, including a strong sense of place, an eye for diversity and an ear for dialogue, but this ambitious work unfolds in an unconventional manner that’s more Virginia Woolf than E.M. Forster.
NW is set in Smith’s home turf of northwest London, in and around the Caldwell Housing Estates. The neighborhood is a patchwork of British urban diversity—African, Jamaican and Irish; Pentecostal and Rastafarian—and home to four childhood friends, Leah, Natalie, Nathan and Felix. Now adults, they live only streets apart, though due to varying degrees of ambition, desire and luck, they might as well inhabit different worlds. That is, until the afternoon a stranger comes to Leah’s door begging for help, launching a chain of events that pulls the four of them together again.
The heart of the book is the friendship between Natalie and Leah, who met when Natalie saved Leah from drowning, pulling her out of the kiddie pool by her red braids. Though both girls aspired to leave the Estate, their lives took different directions. Natalie changed her name from Keisha, went to college and then law school, and married an Italian-Caribbean money manager. Leah also attended college and married a Frenchman from Marseille by way of Morocco, but their economic situation is not nearly so comfortable. The women’s friendship is marked by unspoken conflicts over money, children and jobs, yet their shared roots bind them indivisibly. The young men from the Estate have less luck. Felix struggles to maintain sobriety and a steady job as a mechanic, while Nathan, the bad boy of the neighborhood, sinks deeper and deeper into a thug life as a dealer and a pimp.
Rather than move from point A to B, the action in NW dips, shifts and changes direction, beginning with Leah and Natalie as married adults, then following Felix for a single day. In the longest segment of the book, a series of brief vignettes (some just a single paragraph or a few sentences) trace Natalie’s life from childhood to the present, culminating in an intense encounter with Nathan that reveals how little—and yet, how much—they have in common.
The effect is more collage than group portrait, but despite the novel’s unconventional mode of storytelling, NW takes place in familiar Smith territory—an urban environment filled with articulate, richly drawn and often very funny characters. Toward the end of the novel, Leah asks her friend why they were able to move out of the Estate when so many others were dragged down. Though Natalie has an answer, the question lingers. In NW, Smith offers a robust novel bursting with life: a timely exploration of money, morals, class and authenticity that asks if we are ever truly the sole authors of our own fate.