Zadie Smith's new novel offers gorgeous prose, finely realized observational details and brilliance to spare. It's also not that much fun to read.
Much of that is by design. Smith's “White Teeth” and “On Beauty” are both masterpieces of modern fiction that simultaneously offer the storytelling pleasure of old-fashioned novels. Her first novel in seven years, NW, abandons the storytelling in favor of experimental forms.
Smith goes for broke in dazzling, improvisational-style passages, writing from a stream of consciousness as she tells the story of two girls, Leah Hanwell and Keisha Blake, who grew up together on a council estate. My favorite section was composed of 185 numbered entries.
The first section reads like jazz as readers eavesdrop from 30-something Leah's garden: “Four gardens along, in the estate, a grim girl on the third floor screams Anglo-Saxon at nobody. Juliet balcony, projecting for miles. It ain’t like that. Nah it ain’t like that. Don’t you start. Fag in hand. Fleshy, lobster-red.”
The two girls grew up in "North West London, a dinky part of it you've never heard of called Willesden ...you'd be wrong to dismiss it actually because actually it's very interesting, very ‘diverse.' Lord, what a word."
They have been best friends since Keisha pulled a drowning Leah out of the swimming pool by her braids. “Like most children, theirs was a relationship based on verbs, not nouns...”
The friendship survived wildly divergent tastes in music (at one point, Prince was the only thing the two had in common), Leah's college stint as a lesbian, and Keisha going to law school and changing her name to Natalie.
When the novel opens, Leah, a social worker, is scammed by a former schoolmate, to her husband Michel's disgust. Michel, an immigrant hairdresser, is always striving. “We're all just trying to take that next, that next, next step.”
For him, that means children. Leah, on the other hand, has no desire to do any more climbing and is clinging to the banister with all her might.
She has a college degree that's wasted on her low-paying job and can still see the grim housing project where she grew up from her window.
“Leah traces a knight's move ... with her finger. Two floors up, one window across.
– I was born just there.
From there to here, a journey longer than it looks.”
Natalie, meanwhile, appears to have the perfect marriage to a gorgeous banker, a thriving career and two gorgeous children – leaving Leah insecure and afraid she now bores her best friend. But when readers gets to Natalie's section, they discover a void Natalie only can fill with work.
“ 'Really good to see you,' said Leah. 'You're the only person I can be all of myself with.' Which comment made Natalie begin to cry, not really at the sentiment but rather out of a fearful knowledge that if reversed the statement would be rendered practically meaningless, Ms. Blake having no self to be, not with Leah, or anyone.”
In addition to Natalie and Leah, the third section is devoted to Felix, a 32-year-old former drug dealer whose fate will profoundly impact both women.
One of the great pleasures of “On Beauty” and “White Teeth” were the characters, and unfortunately, Natalie and Leah are scooped out and hollow – such strangers to their own emotions that their motives are practically opaque to themselves.
While astonishingly accomplished, Smith's approach can sometimes backfire, as when Leah and Natalie commit acts that violate their husbands' trusts in profound ways or when they behave inconsistently, such as when a character's supposedly beloved dog is injured and not only doesn't she rush her to a vet, she leaves her alone to go to a party.
In compensation, Smith offers whole series of stunning sentences and spot-on observations about race and modern womanhood.
Where “On Beauty” took its inspiration from E.M. Forster's “Howard's End,” “NW” has frequently been compared to “Mrs. Dalloway,” Virginia Woolf's classic on regret and feminism that has inspired novels from Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize winner “The Hours” to this year's “Five Bells” by Australian novelist Gail Jones and “An Unexpected Guest,” by Anne Korkeakivi. In an interview with Diane Rehm, Smith said, "I really did not give Woolf a second thought when I was writing the book, but when I finished it and read it over, it became obvious that she must've been in my mind somewhere, even just as a model....”
“NW” is a demanding novel – one that readers can get fired up about either way. I can easily see a reader becoming frustrated with “NW” and giving up – or declaring the best novel of the year.
One thing's for sure: By the end of “NW,” while a reader might not like Leah or Natalie much, she will definitely understand where they come from.