When her audacious first novel, “White Teeth,” was published in 2000, Zadie Smith was just out of Cambridge University. Despite having received international acclaim, the young author blithely dismissed her own book as “the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired, tap-dancing 10-year-old.”
With her two subsequent novels, “The Autograph Man” and “On Beauty,” Smith proved herself a risk-taker, rather than an author who essentially writes the same book every time.
In her latest, Smith displays amazing inventiveness yet again, this time exploring darker terrain. If she conjured E.M. Forster with “On Beauty,” “NW” (Penguin, $26.95) channels Virginia Woolf. The modernist influence is deliberate, as Smith unravels — in a rhythmic stream-of-consciousness style — the intertwined stories of a group of contemporary Londoners in their 30s: Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan. Their fates intersect in surprising and painful ways. The city itself is also a prominent character, messy and complex, teeming with possibility and failure.
“NW” stands for North West, the gritty area in London where Smith was raised by a Jamaican mother and an English father. Among other themes, Smith explores class, race, violence, immigration, marriage and female friendship. In other words, she takes on a lot. With its abrupt, destabilizing shifts in time, place and voice, the novel is intricately structured — but that is one of its virtues.
As ever, the author provides readers with sentence-by-sentence pleasures. Smith shows off her gift for sharp, funny dialogue — she’s a master — and spot-on descriptions: “Her belly-button is a tight knot flush with her stomach, a button sewn in a divan.”
The characters in “NW” are all struggling, whether privately or in ways more obvious to those around them. Idealistic Leah Hanwell works for a nonprofit, lives in Willesden, and feels “as faithful in her allegiance to this two-mile square of the city as other people are to their families, or their countries.”
Just as she’s dealing with marital strains and ambivalence about getting pregnant, Leah has her life is overturned: A woman named Shar rings her doorbell one day, begging for money and offering an incoherent sob story. Leah’s attempt to “rescue” her will set off a startling chain of events. Meanwhile, Leah’s best friend, Natalie de Angelis (once known as Keisha), seems to lead an enviably posh existence, with her perfect husband and two beautiful children — but she is in dire straits of her own.
And handsome former classmate Nathan Bogle, whose future once seemed so promising, is now living on the streets; he becomes unexpectedly reacquainted with Natalie. Finally, the vicious stabbing of a local man, a recovering drug addict, will affect them all.
Whether exploring intense awkwardness in marriage, in friendship or among strangers, the author does so with great empathy and insight. Uncomfortable encounters can yield wildly funny moments, but they just as easily collapse into cruelty and violence. Throughout, Smith avoids easy caricatures and stereotypes. She tosses her troubled characters together and delivers hard consequences for each.
In “NW,” Smith raises smart and intriguing questions about the ever-growing gap between rich and poor, about issues of culpability and, above all, about the daily brutalities of modern urban life.
Gannett News Service