NW, by Zadie Smith, had the luxury of a guaranteed readership. Previous novels by Smith, White Teeth, The Autograph Man and On Beauty, along with short stories and essays, received critical acclaim and positioned her as one of the most distinguished writers of the present day. In short, the book had standards to live up to.
NW does not fail or exceed those expectations, but only establishes new ones. The novel departs from Smith’s known style; the most significant difference, in comparison to her other novels, lies in the prose.
Smith has been compared to authors such as Charles Dickens and E.M Forster; writers who focus on descriptions of exterior events to tell their stories.
In NW, Smith abandons this style in favor of a text with a modernist and post-modernist influence. Smith moves her attention to the interior, focusing on the personal thoughts and observations of her characters. To convey these experiences, she employs a stream of consciousness technique akin to those found in James Joyce’s Ulysses and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway. Though this style takes a few pages to get used to, it quickly becomes aesthetically rhythmic and displays a mastery of language that was also present in Smith’s prior works.
Also carried over is the depiction of a multicultural London.
One can most simply describe NW as a London novel, more specifically a North West London novel. The book contains intimate knowledge of the area, which can be attributed to Smith herself being born and raised there. Smith’s discourse describes the surroundings both fondly and harshly; feeling nostalgic but never shying away from its unattractive characteristics.
Through viewpoints of multiple characters, Smith depicts the life of the area’s residents. The narrative first revolves around Leah Hanwell, a married Irish descendent in the midst of an existential crisis. Focus then moves to Felix Cooper, a recovered drug addict. The perspective of a Natalie Blake, a barrister of Caribbean heritage who has success but not happiness, ends the novel. The three storylines coincide via a single event that affects all three.
Despite the geographic focus, the novel has a wide reach; a range of concerns such as class, identity, and adulthood are explored. Ultimately, many of these narratives feel relatable to any reader.
The fluidity of plot, however, serves as the main flaw of the novel. Smith seems so focused on her new approach that she sacrifices the pace of the story, and the transitions and connections between the three different storylines do not come across strongly.
NW cannot be labeled a masterpiece, but it is entertaining, truthful and beautifully written. In relation to Smith’s career, the novel displays a desire to evolve and inspires confidence that she will continue to produce well-crafted and enjoyable fiction.