Zadie Smith puts forth her most formally daring novel yet in NW, a chronicle of a neighborhood through the eyes of two dissatisfied residents and childhood best friends. The literary wunderkind who published White Teeth at age 25 shows off a pared-down style and cast, but continues to apply significant scrutiny to the world she’s examining.
Leah Hanwell and Natalie Blake have both returned to Kilburn, their old northwest-London neighborhood, to find it newly plagued by petty crimes and hopelessness, slowly sliding from respectability. Their arrival coincides with a season of personal frustration for both women; Leah resists the pressure to have a baby to complete her picture of middle-class respectability, while Natalie, who changed her name from Keisha when she moved away, sees her marriage to a fellow lawyer foundering. Loyal to each other even when they find they have nothing in common, Leah and Natalie struggle privately with their doubts but continue to exchange news about their old classmates, including the one who, in the book’s terrific rat-a-tat opening, scams Leah for cab money by appealing to their shared history.
Leah and Natalie represent Smith’s most intimate examination of the objects she’s been pinballing between since her debut, White Teeth: the shaping of ambitions and lives by race, class, and proximity. Part of this microcosmic view is built on circumstance: Achieving success by Kilburn standards has isolated the women from their neighbors, while leaving them at a loss for what to pursue next. The notion of money as an incomplete answer to this question even ribbons through their marriages: Leah discourages her husband from day trading with their savings, which he sees as the path to wealth, while Natalie resents her husband, with his relatively privileged background, for his seeming immunity to worry.
Smith has been gravitating toward deeper exploration of interior spaces in her novels—their worlds shrunk from a city in White Teeth to two houses in On Beauty. The trend continues with NW’s 155-page “Host” section, tracking Natalie from council-house resident to corporate lawyer through stream-of-consciousness chapters, some only a sentence long. These breathless vignettes, some taking the form of fragments of dialogue or text-message transcripts, are revelatory for the way they elide and stretch Natalie’s life, creating spaces that just prompt more questions.
Smith’s technique in “Host” is so powerful that it makes NW’s final section seem like an afterthought, as it returns to more conventional framing and the legacy of a third Kilburn resident, Felix Cooper, only casually related to the central plot. Felix’s attachment to the neighborhood is harder for him to reconcile, but his section, riding on a coincidence, lacks the introspection that would connect him tonally with Leah and Natalie. His appearance muddies the view of Kilburn life rather than expanding it; Smith delves into her characters’ lives so deeply that it hurts to be shaken out of one of them and nominally attached to others, with so many questions left unanswered.