Fans of White Teeth will find much to satisfy them in Zadie Smith’s latest work. Weaving together three narratives Smith once again proves her skill at describing a moment and a place in time, in all its inherent beauty and ugliness.
Centred on London’s Kilburn area and the Caldwell estate, the story is told through three individuals; Leah, Felix and Natalie. Connected to the other through their shared past, each character is also battling to escape what seems to be the inevitable descent into poverty, drug addiction and crime of the “youths” of Caldwell. While they achieve their goals with varying degrees of success, they are nevertheless continually drawn back to their past by families, former acquaintances and chance encounters which threaten to destroy the fragile stability which they have constructed for themselves. Deploying both distinct narrative styles and imaginative visual layout to endow each character with a distinct personality, Smith brings Leah, Felix and Natalie to life, awaking our interest in them. As Smith immerses her reader in each character’s point of view, history and current drama she provokes deep feeling, as well as empathy. There is nothing two dimensional in this novel.
NW engages with a number of issues and gives them a human face. Smith engages with the problem of the economic crisis of recent years, showing through her characters the way this has impacted on various levels of society, from the stock market dealer downwards, showing an uncommon empathy. Through her characters Smith is able to capture the sentiment of a generation: holding university degrees which have brought them nothing but more debt; struggling to hold onto jobs in an ever decreasing and competitive marketplace; constantly fighting to survive; the political activeness and hope of the past generation lost. Through the stories of Leah and Natalie, Smith also lays bare much about femininity, exploring women’s sexuality, the pressures of the biological imperative to have children and women’s sexuality, and also women’s relationships as mothers, wives, sisters and friends. As is often the case with Smith, and as is right and inevitable given her novel’s location, Smith is actively engaged with debates about race and class tensions, often exploring them in very subtle ways which might highlight her own readers’ prejudices. By shedding light on the tensions which exist in multicultural societies around the issues involved in reconciling various different cultural identities within one individual, Smith raises important questions about what ideas such as race, nationality and religious identity really mean.
For all this depth, Smith’s novel however is still massively entertaining, with moments of humour as well as of deep philosophy and social commentary. There is a circularity to the narrative, almost as though following the lines of the Underground system as each character winds their way out of and back to Kilburn. Avoiding melodrama, NW nonetheless communicates the often mundane dangers of modern urban life, insidious precisely in the fact that so much of the violence which occurs goes on barely remarked. It is a story about roots, about self invention, about fear, about love and friendship. It is also a story about the divisions of one of the largest multi-cultural cities in the world. NW is truly deserving of the acclaim it has received: nominated for The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013, Sunday Times Top Ten Best Seller as well as being named book of the year by various critics. Smith fans will lap this book up, and the uninitiated should use it as a chance to get acquainted.