Zadie Smith’s first novel in eight years is both original and vogue. Whilst White Teeth, Smith’s accoladed debut, and Orange prize-winning On Beauty centred around the obscure lives of those living in the multi-racial suburbs of gritty North London, a slight shift of focus this time makes the city as important as the Dickensian style of character analysis Smith has become famous for.
Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan are all trying to leave the Caldwell council estate of their childhood behind. As they each carve a unique path into adulthood they are faced with power and struggle and drugs and prejudice and everything else that a grimy life in the city can throw at them.
But with the roll of the city we see Smith’s characters slotted in amongst us and that is the point, they stand on the ground next to us because they are carved from realism. NW is about ‘cheek-by-jowl’ city living but more about those figures who disrupt the ebb and flow of normal, predictable interaction, like the woman who knocks on Leah’s door as she coasts through life and demands a reaction, a sway from the ordinary. Smith forces together strange, local encounters with people from different backgrounds and class in an attempt to shape the chaos of humanity.
But again, so vogue is a flow of consciousness that Smith can barely conceal her leap onto the band-waggon of modernity, and for some that will be off-putting. Sections called ‘Visitation’, ‘Host’, ‘Guest’ and ‘Crossing’ contain chapters that slip out of numerical order into random ‘37’s, and others that are named instead after post-code alone. Occasional page-long chapters consist only of poetry or lists, or speech arranged entirely into what it seeks to explain; a mouth or an apple tree, presumably to reflect the mental state of the character describing it.
So snapshot-like are some of her depictions that reference to Joyce’s Dubliners cannot be avoided; and Smith is already calling it her favourite work of fiction so far. If you’re a fan of Smith’s unique style, you might just love it, but either way, she’s back in the game.
NW is available now from Hamish Hamilton.
words: Lottie Brown