Restlessness defines “NW,” Zadie Smith’s fourth novel, an intimate tale of social mobility in 21st-century London that jives to the city’s jangly beat.
Told in prose that ranges from the staccato to the sonorous, the book centers on a multiracial quartet of 30-somethings, two women and two men who grew up on the same crummy council estate in London’s northwestern neighborhood of Kilburn. It’s Smith’s own home turf and also provided the setting for her breakthrough debut, “White Teeth.”
Though it features abortion, theft and murder, “NW” is character- rather than plot-driven, and it’s the women who carry it. Leah Hanwell’s family is Irish, Keisha Blake’s is Caribbean; they’ve been best friends since they were four years old and Keisha saved Leah from drowning, fishing her out of the local public pool by her ginger pigtails.
Both escaped the estate to decent universities, Leah to Edinburgh where she dyed her hair, fell in with tree-huggers and slept with girls, and Keisha to Bristol where she changed her name to Natalie.
Now in their mid-30s, they remain close even though their paths have diverged. Leah is stuck in a dead-end, do-good job doling out meager funding to charities. She lives in a council flat with a dog she dotes on and a husband -- a North African hairdresser -- who dabbles in online currency trading and yearns for a child.
Natalie has become a lawyer, banker’s wife and mother of two. Home for her is an exquisite million-pound house overlooking a park. While Leah passes the old council estate on her way to work, Natalie lives just far enough away to be able to forget where she came from.
Unbeknownst to each other, both women are rebelling against the domestic lives they’ve made for themselves in ways that could cost them dearly.
Life has turned out rather differently for the men. Nathan Bogle, object of Leah’s schoolgirl crush and a sometime professional soccer hopeful, is living on the streets. Felix Cooper, with his dimples and three gold teeth, is a reformed junkie who once dreamed of making films and now works as a car mechanic.
Their stories -- one of which will end tragically -- intersect through the kinds of coincidences that make cities feel like such small places.
Indeed, as the novel skips back and forth in time, flirting with numbered vignettes, experimental typography and stream-of-consciousness meditations, discontinuity becomes a kind of continuity in itself.
From a train window, Leah gazes out at her neighborhood, reflecting on how far it has fallen from its 19th-century beginnings: “Well-appointed country living for those tired of the city. Fast forward. Disappointed city living for those tired of their countries.”
Some things do not change. A socialite drug addict who lives above a brothel and an Italian heiress who once upon a time got knocked up by a Trinidadian train guard may test the rigidity of the class system, yet the choice of a noun can still betray a person. Someone’s lounge is another’s sitting room and somebody else’s living room.
“NW” is a moodier, less exuberant novel than its predecessors. There’s a poignancy to some of its observations that is new. Take Natalie’s realization, for instance, as she watches her gay brother and his housemates down shots of blue liquor and feels her husband and kids waiting for her at home: “Women come bearing time.”
Elsewhere, you’ll still find comic set pieces including a deftly skewered dinner party, plenty of pitch-perfect urban patois (“You get me?”), and a shrewd assessment of the professional woman’s wardrobe (pretty much any of Natalie’s work outfits might be worn to a funeral).
For all the book’s formal gutsiness, its themes are timeless: reinvention, yes, and also marriage, motherhood and the relationship between parents and children. Similarly, its street-smart riffs may take in drugs and sex toys as well as Sartre and apple blossoms, yet stylistically the author it most consistently brings to mind is Virginia Woolf.
If the novel doesn’t quite transcend the sum of its parts, it remains one of the most interesting portrayals of 30-something womanhood that I’ve come across in a long time. Of course, I happen to be a 30-something woman. For other readers, Smith’s brilliant eye and idiosyncratic ear should be ample enticement.
“NW” is published by Penguin Press in the U.S. and Hamish Hamilton in the U.K. (401 pages, $26.95, 18.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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