Tuesday, October 2, 2012

"NW," by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth” bowled me over. What a window into the multicultural lives of so many in London! What rich, detailed writing! When her second novel, “The Autograph Man,” came out, I had a hard time with it. It seemed dry and – OK, dull. I didn’t get very far into it before abandoning it. But her third novel, “On Beauty,” was riveting. And I savored and learned from her thoughtful essay collection, “Changing My Mind.” Her latest novel, which has just appeared to huge fanfare, is “NW” (Penguin, 2012). (The title refers to a less prosperous section of London.) I heard that the novel was somewhat experimental in form, which discouraged me a bit; I tend to prefer my fiction the old-fashioned way (with exceptions for such transcendent authors as Virginia Woolf). I wavered: should I read it or not? But I did, and I am very glad I did. First, it isn’t actually so very experimental. One character’s – Natalie’s – section is written in 185 mini-chapters, most less than a page long, some only a sentence long. But this is easy to navigate and flows well. Second, “NW” is in some senses an old-fashioned British novel, full of plot and, especially, well-developed characters. It deals with social issues, which I do like, as long as a novel is not too didactic; this one is not. The novel tells the stories of four young people from the “NW” part of London, and their quite different fates. It also tells of the psychological cost of moving among worlds. Natalie in particular, the one who travels farthest from her roots career-wise and money-wise, yet chooses to stay fairly close to those roots geographically, is torn among her various identities until she doesn’t know who she really is. Her situation, and to a lesser degree her friend Leah’s, show both the good and the difficult aspects of moving in and out of different socioeconomic and racial settings. Others of their friends and neighbors pay even steeper prices as they become adults. Smith has said in an interview that from now on, despite having written about the U.S. in “On Beauty,” she will focus her writing on London, the place she knows best. Comparisons have been made to Joyce’s portrayal of Dublin; these are heady comparisons, but I can understand them, as the sense of place in “NW” is so intense, so knowing, so detailed. Reading “NW” makes me curious and eager, already, to know what Smith will write about next, and to read that next novel, whenever we are fortunate enough to have it.

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