• Zadie Smith
  • Penguin
  • 416 pp.
  • October 2, 2012

An intersection of lives in the sensory overload of London neighborhoods shows how far we can get from ourselves without ever leaving.

Reviewed by Danielle Evans

Zadie Smith’s latest novel, NW, is a meditation on choice, destiny and interconnection. The book gets its name from the section of London in which it is set, and in many ways the notion of city is the novel’s driving force. The plot has the energy of a brisk city walk, the narrative linked less by direct causality and more by casual intersection.  NW’s real interest and triumph lies in character study, though character here is clearly a function of place. If there is a blunt message, it is that for all that divides the main characters, and all of their pointed reinventions, they have all, quite literally, failed to get very far from the place where they were born.

Smith gives each protagonist a distinct voice and a separate section of the novel. Leah, a middle-class white woman with working-class roots and a black husband who has emigrated from France, introduces us to the novel and the city. She rushes through her narrative in a breathless present-tense stream of consciousness, looking for meaning and decency in her friends and neighbors. Felix is a black Londoner and recovering drug addict who more often than not tries to do the right thing. He occupies the center of the novel and the section of the novel written in the most traditional voice and structure — even though before we meet him, we learn that he is dead by the end of the day. Natalie, a lawyer who has changed her name from Keisha and transcended her working-class roots through marriage and education, guides the book’s concluding sections. Her story is told first in numbered fragments that are meant to call attention to her fragmented self and then in a narrated walk through her old neighborhood.

Smith is playful with geography. In one instance she renders a set of Internet-generated walking directions and follows them up with the sensory overload of the actual walk, providing an account of the sights, sounds and ideologies that one is bombarded with in a shared city space.

She is equally interested in the shared space of the body, rendering it in both sensual and silly ways. The sex in the book is graphic but not gratuitous, and the sex scenes — from Felix’s sadly sensual rendezvous with an old lover to Natalie’s awkward and unsatisfying forays into casual sex — are revealing in their ability to shift between the body and the interior life of the sexual partners. Of the former encounter, Smith concludes: “On their knees, looking out and over town, they came swiftly to reliably pleasurable, reliably separate, conclusions, that were yet somehow an anticlimax when compared to those five minutes, five minutes ago, when it had seemed possible to climb inside another person, head first, and disappear completely.”

NW is interested in the female body in particular, in the ways that it is marked and the things that it is asked to do. Some critics have found Natalie and Leah unsympathetic, especially in comparison with Felix. But Smith’s choices here — giving the two women unconventional voices and experimentally styled narratives, in contrast to the more straightforward language and structure of Felix’s perspective — seem quite deliberate. Felix has the most traditional narrative voice and arc because his story is, in some sense, the most traditional.

Felix is a man who seeks a better life but stumbles on his way out of the past, stopping to cheat on his loving girlfriend with a passionate but unstable ex and then punishing her for his own transgression. As readers, we know that story because its elements are familiar: the crazy, self-destructive ex-girlfriend; the temptation of a passionate lover; the man trying to be his better self; the devoted and decent new girlfriend to whom he must return by severing ties with his old life.

We are less familiar with the story of a married woman who pretends to be trying for a baby with her loving spouse while secretly having abortions. Or of a successful woman who, in her model life and family, feels so trapped and not herself that she turns to anonymous Internet-solicited sex as a way out.

We have a context for understanding and forgiving Felix. For her female characters, Smith is tasked with inventing one, and she does so in part through structure. Fragment number 179 in Natalie’s section reads simply, “What a difficult thing a gift is for a woman! She’ll punish herself for receiving it.” That sense seems to underpin both Natalie and Leah, as they question every happiness as a possible betrayal of a greater duty.

Boldness is the pleasure and the risk of work like Smith’s. It is the pleasure of a book like White Teeth because the writing happily disregards external notions of what it can and cannot do; and it is the failure of a book like On Beauty, in which that boldness eventually highlights a lack of familiarity with the dialect and cultural context of half of the characters. Here, the neighborhood is well known territory for Smith, and the larger questions of the meaning of neighborhood and what we make of ourselves in public and private space take center stage. That concern with neighborhood and continuity and what “public space” means, in terms of both geography and the self, resonates in NW.

The bold use of experimental structure to explore those questions sometimes sacrifices narrative  and, more problematically, character development. This is most evident in Natalie’s section. Smith provides wonderfully intimate glimpses of Natalie’s moment-to-moment life and yet glosses over incidents that seem central to her development — her leaving the church, for example, or changing her name from Keisha to Natalie. Perhaps Smith means to signal that Natalie’s motivations for her most important decisions are unknowable or unnamable, even to Natalie. But the effect renders her occasionally incomprehensible, which limits the credibility and impact of Natalie’s actions toward the end of the book.

There is a neat parallel between the opening of the book, when Leah asserts to herself in the tone of a motivational speech that “I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me,” and Natalie’s concluding thought that she and Leah have escaped the fates of Felix and Nathan Bogle, a former classmate who has become part of the novel’s climactic events, “because we worked harder … we were smarter and we knew we didn’t want to end up begging on other people’s doorsteps.”

Coming at the end of a novel that periodically emphasizes the limits of self-determination, that simplified narrative of success highlights its own philosophical limitations. But at this juncture it feels clumsy forcing the words into the mouth of Natalie— Natalie who as a teenager didn’t go to a better college because she couldn’t afford the train fare for the scholarship interview; Natalie whose life as an adult has just come close to imploding and may yet unravel more.

Still, the larger success of NW is evident in its very last sentence, when Natalie, making a phone call as Keisha, does so by “disguising her voice with her voice.” As the story of four characters linked to a tragic occurrence, NW occasionally stumbles. But as the story of how far we get from ourselves and our roots without ever really leaving, it sings.

Danielle Evans is the author of the short story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. She teaches literature and creative writing at American University.

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