NW by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton), 294 pages, $32 cloth. Rating: NNN
Here's the dilemma with a writer like Zadie Smith: should we be satisfied with her flashes of brilliance and ignore the maddening inconsistency, or should we insist on the discipline required to make story and emotion mesh into a coherent whole?
NW, Smith's meditation on class and ambition in northwest London, takes some thrilling risks, especially when it comes to style and dialogue, but it loses some narrative threads and lets its technical wizardry get in the way of the emotion.
Leah and Natalie are long-time friends who live five blocks away from each other yet in other ways are worlds apart. Natalie's a wildly successful lawyer, while Leah works at a non-profit org as a grant officer. Leah's life of downward mobility in the first section is countered by Smith's description of Natalie's gentrified existence in the third. Between the two is a segment in which former addict Felix tries to get clean.
The book begins with strangely naive Leah being scammed by a druggie for £20. That promising storyline disappears. And a big plot point at the end related to Natalie's sexual predilections comes out of nowhere.
At the same time, the narrative shifts in time in a kind of circular motion, itself an intriguing reflection of characters' inability to change. Smith can deliver crisp dialogue in one paragraph and demonstrate her aspirations to break the barriers between reality and the subconscious in the next. And she's intimately familiar with the setting, which here features everything from tree-lined streets to condom-strewn laneways, and from pathetic junkies to snobby wine aficionados.
All those tricks are impressive, but except in the middle section where they're less intrusive, they tend to leach the book of its emotions.
Unlike her disappointing previous release, On Beauty, however, NW does give glimpses of that promising writer who blew us away with White Teeth.
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