Each character in Zadie Smith’s vivid new novel NW has you living their past and present with their every draw of breath. A master of dialogue, Smith infuses her ebullient, witty prose with North West London’s tapestry of voices: it’s fast-paced enough to be an unputdownable read, but so rich you almost want to slow down and savour the evocative riffs exchanged between the locals.
In her first novel, the joyously entertaining White Teeth, Smith employed a large cast to take the reader though the friendships, mixed race marriages and class barriers of the multicultural North West.
NW focuses on four 30-something characters, all natives of Caldwell, a gritty council estate that they have moved both up and away from - with varying degrees of success.
The novel starts with former partier Leah Hanwell, whose encounter with a drug addict scammer – a former school mate - throws a cog in her seemingly stable place in the world and in her relationships.
Leah’s best friend from childhood, corporate lawyer Natalie, has an enviable life but as the estate-raised daughter of Jamaican immigrants, has had to fully re-create herself to move up in the world – and she is disconnected emotionally.
Both women are having types of life crises, but the drama is deftly woven into a climactic narrative of everyday life.
To explain the origins of each character’s inner turmoil, Smith casually dips and dives into episodes from the past, with glimpses both humorous and cutting of the worlds they inhabit.
Far more experimental than her previous novels, each character’s chapter is written in a different style to the previous. Natalie’s chapter bounds along in 188 micro chapters, some seemingly minor, others stories in themselves. While Leah’s part, like the character herself, is freer-flowing and associative, even incorporating shape poetry into the text.
The most moving chapter of the four interconnected tales is Felix Cooper’s. Out of all the possible outcomes for Caldwell’s former children, Felix has survived the worst and become a man with purpose and ambition. His wonderfully revealing conversations with two upper-class white Londoners (a hipster and a former lover) are highlights in Smith’s prose.
The portrayal of Nathan, the fourth Caldwell character who, unlike Felix, has fallen through the cracks never to return, is not given as many words or as much insight as Leah, Natalie and Felix, but is still sketched with brilliant speed and humour, as are a dozen other peripheral personalities, who float throughout the tragi-comedy of NW like voices in the street.