Zadie Smith’s 2012 novel, NW, makes for an unusual reading experience, one that is sometimes as frustrating as it is gratifying. The “NW” of her title refers to northwest London, a section of the city Smith is intimately familiar with as a result of having grown up there herself. The good news is that this familiarity allows Smith to create a core group of memorable characters for NW, some of whom have known each other well for a lifetime, and others who know each other only to the degree that they recognize everyone in the neighborhood from having seen the same old faces on the streets day after day. The bad news is that Smith decided to use a different writing style for each section of the novel. That makes it difficult for the reader ever to settle into a comfortable enough reading rhythm for the story to take over and flow on its own. Getting the most from NW begins as a chore – and it ends that way – making it likely that some readers will abandon the book long before they make it through its first section.
The book revolves around the relationship between its two main characters, Leah Hanwell, a white woman of Irish descent, and Keisha Blake, a black woman. The two have been best friends since they were little girls, and they slip into and out of that relationship with ease throughout the entire book. Leah is married to a striking Algerian francophone with such good looks that her black co-workers are starting to resent the fact that a white woman, and not one of them, is married to him. Keisha, in the meantime, has re-invented herself as Natalie Blake, a successful London barrister, and irritatingly to Leah, a mother.
The other two main characters of NW are not well known to Leah or Natalie. Nathan, now hopelessly addicted to drugs and living on the streets, is the boy both women were in love with as girls but never worked up the nerve to speak to at school. Felix is just a face on the streets they have seen enough that they feel as if they know him. Of the two, Felix is much the more sympathetic character and the section of the novel devoted primarily to him is perhaps the best part of NW.
NW is a realistic novel. It is sometimes optimistic, sometimes angry, as it offers its rather bleak look at urban life. It is a novel long on ethnic influences and expectations and intimately explores the fine line between remaining true to one’s roots and being limited by them. It is not a novel I will soon forget, but it is one in which the author’s experimentation with various style types hurt as much as it helped. NW is, I think, one of those novels destined to have a whole lot of readers give up on it long before they should. And that is a shame, because its characters and plot deserve more.