The Story of a City
NW, by Zadie Smith. Penguin Press, 401 pp. $26.95
Zadie Smith has created a snapshot of London’s northwest side. In her own personal style, she creates characters that are relatable and uniquely their own.
Leah, Natalie, Felix, and Nathan have each grown up in Caldwell, an area in northwest London, and they’re struggling with the transition from childhood nostalgia into adulthood.
Smith’s latest novel, long awaited, is not necessarily about anything. There isn’t one singular line of direction that follows each character through the novel. Rather, the story focuses on character. London, both the beauty and the dark, brutal corners, is a character of its own.
A hundred and one ways to take cover: the complete black tent, the facial grid, back of the head, Louis Vuitton-stamped, Gucci-stamped, yellow lace, attached to sunglasses, hardly on at all, striped, candy pink; paired with tracksuits, skin-tight jeans, summer dresses, blouses, vests, gypsy skirts, flares. Bearing no relation to the debates in the papers, in parliament. Everybody love sandals. Everybody.
Smith’s greatest skill in writing is creating a conversation where everybody is talking at once and yet the dialog is still understandable. Characters talk about a certain topic for paragraphs on end, and then in a single sentence as their neighbor to pass the peas before continuing on with their thought.
Those were thee days. Weren’t they, Leah? Those were really the days. Pass the whisky. Because it’s a facile comparison: you can’t be responsible for a complex economic event in the same way you’re responsible for going out on the street with the intention to steal. Pass the coffee. It’s not any coffee, it’s extremely good coffee.
NW is a cross-section of life in London. It’s a series of snapshots, understood even by those of us who have never been to the area. In the same way that we read Middlemarch and Howard’s End for an understanding of how life worked back then, people will be reading Smith’s novel for an understand of how life works now.
NW may be the story of a city, but its message doesn’t stop at the city limits. This novel is for everyone, because, as Smith suggests, whether we’re good or bad, hero or villain, we’re all human. We all deal with daily struggles, we all make decisions that affect others, and we all deal with the consequences that arise as a result.
Smith is also the author of White Teeth, On Beauty, The Autograph Man, and Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays.