28th Aug 2012
NW by Zadie Smith
When Zadie Smith’s big, bold début White Teeth landed back in 2000, its author instantly became the poster child for contemporary British fiction: fiercely precocious, with a canny ear for dialogue and dialect, and an erudite yet irreverent grasp of so many of the different cultures and histories that make up modern Britain.
NW, Smith’s eagerly-anticipated 4th novel, returns to her roots in north-west London, following the lives of four characters – Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan – who all grew up on the same council estate, Caldwell.
As the four central characters grow, and grow apart, they continue to inhabit the same spaces, but move in quite different circles, separated by their own imagined geographies – until a knock on Leah’s door and a demand for help sets in motion events that begin to break down those barriers.
But more than it is a tale of people, as the title makes clear, NW is a novel of place: the precisely-recreated streets and territories of Willesden are at the core of its plot and its structure.
Readers will find many elements familiar from White Teeth – interwoven individual stories, a culturally and ethinically diverse urban setting, a deliciously dry humour, and a refusal to sentimentalise combined with a genuine tenderness for her characters.
Yet dazzling as White Teeth was, it had more than a tinge of greenness about it, and the cleverest turns of phrase sometimes seemed to serve Smith’s jubilant sense of her own (very real) accomplishment rather than the characters or situations they described. By contrast, NW is immediately recognisable as the work of a much more mature writer – but it is no less brimming with life, and is packed with the intricate observations of character and emotion that only the most skilled novelist can even identify and separate out, let alone depict.
That said, Smith’s attempt to capture the fractured and fractious nature of modern city living is, finally, only partly successful. The disjointed structure – stream of consciousness, short sketches in lieu of fully-developed scenes – works brilliantly, but her reluctance to tie up these disparate strands into neat conclusions makes for a novel that feels lacking in any real plot or drive. It doesn’t have to be thus, as a comparison to Woolf‘s Mrs Dalloway – with which NW draws immediate comparison – shows. Perhaps the difference comes, in the end, from Woolf and Smith’s different attitudes towards modern urban life – the former celebratory, the latter decidedly ambivalent.
Despite these weaknesses, NW remains an intruiging and thought-provoking read. With this return to her own beginnings, Smith examines fundamental questions about where we come from and how far it’s ever possible to move on from our roots. There are no neat or comforting conclusions here, other than the satisfaction of being in the presence of a true master of her art.
Recommended for: Anyone who’s ever had a love-hate affair with the place they call home; Londoners, native and adopted.
Other recommended reading: Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire by Iain Sinclair gives a non-fiction take on another London fiefdom. Or try Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty for a very privileged, west-London counterpart to NW.