One of the questions Zadie Smith raises in her latest novel, “NW,” is how people who come from the same circumstances can have such different outcomes. It begins with a ring at the doorbell, a scam that becomes awkward for the grifter and the mark, Leah, when they realize they grew up in the same neighborhood and went to the same school. Later, Leah’s husband and mother mock her for being so easily duped, but she prefers, for a while anyway, to believe that she was helping someone in need. But the con haunts Leah, and the woman who talked her out of thirty pounds appears again and again, reminding her how quickly she gave this woman money, and how easily their circumstances might have been reversed.
Leah is married to an African-Frenchman, Michel, and also dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. “NW” revolves mainly around Leah and Natalie, her oldest friend, another success story from their North West neighborhood. Natalie, a barrister, even went so far to change her name (from Keisha) to make her transformation complete. “Nat is the girl done good from the thousand-kid madhouse; done too good, maybe, to recall where she came from. To live like this you would have to forget everything that came before. How else could you manage?” On the surface, her life is perfect—a handsome, successful husband, beautiful children, beautiful home, and yet she engages in some reckless behavior that jeopardizes her family, and no one, even Leah, really has anything nice to say about her. Natalie and Leah’s long friendship is complicated by their husband’s different socio-economic classes, by their own disparity of income and success, and pressure on Leah and Michel to have children.
“NW” is light on plotting, focusing instead on the themes of identity and race, not uncommon in Smith’s work. Like a fresh version of Virginia Woolf, she slips back and forth in time. To a certain extent, the reader needs to give themselves over to ambiguity, it’s not uncommon to wonder exactly which character is speaking or to flip back through pages looking for the beginning of the thread. Within this romp through language and time in North West London almost hides a murder, treated with something like carelessness. But Smith is far too clever a writer to insert a meaningless death, isn’t she? After this random murder, Leah and Keisha’s childhood-through-present is described in no less than 185 short chapters. These brief vignettes provide snapshots of the girls’ lives, both hilarious and poignant. “Together they ran, jumped, danced, sang, bathed, colored-in, rode bikes, pushed a Valentine under Nathan Bogle’s door, read magazines, shared chips, sneaked a cigarette, read Cheryl’s diary, wrote the word FUCK on the first page of a Bible, tried to get The Exorcist out of the video shop, watched a prostitute or loose woman or a girl just crazy in love suck someone off in a phone box, found Cheryl’s weed, found Cheryl’s vodka, shaved Leah’s forearm with Cheryl’s razor, did the moonwalk, learned the obscene dance popularized by Salt-N-Pepa, and many other things of this nature.” Those paragraphs zip through the girl’s lives and Keisha’s self-invention and serve as an accurate representation of how our memories collect themselves—the mundane and the significant, all whirled together. When Leah finally confesses to Natalie that she can’t make sense of her circumstances, her friend’s reply is a little too easy, given everything that came before. “Because we worked harder,” she says. “We were smarter and we knew we didn’t want to end up begging on other people’s doorsteps. We wanted to get out.”
“NW” doesn’t quite match the exhilaration of Smith’s wunderkind debut, “White Teeth,” or reach the brilliance of her sadly overlooked “On Beauty.” But this latest novel highlights her acuity of language and voice, steeped in literary tradition. Almost forty now and with a small child, Smith might be moving her work in a new direction—not surprisingly looking more deeply into the decision to have children, and the elements that make us who we are, or who we choose to be. (Kelly Roark)
by Zadie Smith
The Penguin Press, 416 pages, $27