The past entangles survivors of housing project in Zadie Smith's latest
Published: Sunday, October 7, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 4, 2012 at 2:33 p.m.
Zadie Smith's fourth novel bends but doesn't quite break under the grinding weight of expectations. Too engaging and intelligent to disregard, too incomplete to satisfy, too shakily structured to stand with its predecessors, NW exists awkwardly in the middle ground, much like its characters, who have grown up in a northwest London housing project but can't shake free of its influence.
In many ways, NW is pure Zadie Smith; no overused, postmodern style tricks can obscure her talent. Like her earlier novels, NW is a penetrating examination of the cultural, racial and class divisions that separate us. "It's an island we're on here. I always forget that, don't you?" one character asks two strangers on the train. She's talking about Britain, but Smith is talking about something else: We're all on an island, yeah? We're alone, despite spouses and families, to sort out this mess of a life. And no one can help us when past and future collide.
Such dissonance rattles the lives of Leah Hanwell and Natalie Blake, best friends as girls who drifted apart in adolescence (over important issues like Joy Division, Sonic Youth and William Burroughs), stumbled back into friendship during their college years and now maintain an uneasy alliance. In their mid-30s, neither is on sure footing.
In Leah's eyes, Natalie is the one who can handle anything, the one with a perfect life: lovely flat, law degree, wealthy, biracial husband, two adorable children. But Natalie knows different. Born Keisha but determined to leave all traces of her Caribbean immigrant roots behind, Natalie has spent her youth "crazy busy with self invention," working hard to erase her mother's fretful religion, her sister's poor decisions, her own memories of poverty.
Smith introduces two other residents whose lives intersect with Leah's and Natalie's: Felix, newly sober and maybe ready at last to be the man he should be; and Nathan, whose slide through the cracks of society Smith doesn't explain, instead offering glimpses of his shadowy role around the neighborhood. But the men's links to Leah and Natalie often feel so tenuous that one wonders how NW would have fared without them.
Natalie, though, is unforgettable. Her narrative, often told in brief, half-page chapters, is riveting. Leah's piece of the puzzle, which opens the book, is less satisfying.
Still, nothing can change the fact that Smith knows this bit of London in her bones, knows what it means to live there, knows what it means to get out. Yes, it's an island we're on here. A loud, crowded island. But like the novel itself, there's beauty amid the cacophony.