Zadie Smith’s first novel, 2000’s White Teeth, was labeled by some critics as “hysterical realism,” a style characterized by elaborate networks of plots and characters (or messy narratives of shallow personalities, depending on who you ask). At first glance NW, Smith’s fourth novel and her first in seven years, seems to be of the same ilk: both take place in northwest London, span decades, and feature characters of diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Two of White Teeth’s characters even have small cameos in the new novel. However, where White Teeth observed the cultural significance of the collision of dozens of diverse London residents, NW maps the effects of these differences on the emotional lives of the novel’s characters. The same overarching issues are present, but NW addresses them on a micro rather than a macro level.
The basic plot is this: Leah (white, mediocre student, interested in drugs and boys) and Natalie (nee Keisha, black, studious, deeply religious) grow up together as best friends in a housing project in northwest London. Both attend college; Leah gets a wearisome job at a nonprofit, while Natalie goes on to law school and becomes a successful lawyer. Leah marries a Nigerian hairdresser and Natalie marries a black man whose mother is an Italian aristocrat. Both women settle in London (Leah in public housing, Natalie in a luxury flat) and remain friends despite the significant financial disparity that exists between them as adults. Their lives form a study in relativity: both Leah and Natalie are wildly successful in the context of their upbringing—several of their childhood peers appear in the novel as drug dealers, junkies, teenage parents, and petty criminals—yet immense socioeconomic differences are felt by the two women in relation to each other. The driving force of the novel is the tension experienced by Natalie and Leah in their friendship with each other and in their relationships with their upbringing.
Success is an uncertain term in the world of NW. The novel calls into question traditional barometers of achievement, refusing to favor either protagonist as the winner. Natalie, the archetypal woman who “has it all,” could easily come across as superior: she has an elite education, a morally and financially fulfilling job, two healthy children, a successful and supportive husband, cultured friends, and an expensive flat. However, she envies Leah for her perceived freedom, her openness, and her passionate marriage. Both women are equally uncomfortable at Natalie’s swanky dinner parties—Leah because she feels culturally and economically inferior to the other guests, Natalie because Leah’s presence illuminates the uncomfortable artifice of her own role as a member of the elite. The portrayal of female friendship has been a much-discussed topic in the media recently, and Zadie Smith offers her own version in this novel. Leah and Natalie’s friendship is simultaneously collaborative and competitive. The two women have an undramatic relationship of mutual trust and support; at the same time, Natalie and Leah reveal their own absurdities in the context of their friendship. They both succeed and fail in comparison to each other.
The strength of NW lies in Smith’s elegant depiction of her characters. While some minor personalities—the elderly Rastafarian and Natalie’s gay brother are the worst offenders—come across as stock characters, her gift for channeling a range of voices from varied ages, races, genders, and social classes is truly impressive. Leah and Natalie in particular are sketched with depth, complexity, and subtlety. Their personalities are compelling enough to sustain the sections of the novel in which very little actually happens. It is jarring, then, when the plot suddenly takes control of the end of the novel. Both Natalie and Leah experience dramatic epiphanies that do a disservice to the nuanced complexity of their characters. It is an odd narrative choice to wrap up a character-driven novel with an excess of plot-driven action. It is apparent throughout NW that the narrative is building the foundation for a climax, but when it arrives the action feels forced and false.
Early in the novel Smith describes Leah as “faithful in her allegiance to this two-mile square of the city as other people are to their families, or their countries.” This is an unsurprising sentiment for a person who has spent the majority of her life in the neighborhood; however, Smith has made a telling choice by applying these feelings to Natalie as well as Leah. This is a novel about friendship, about class differences, about modern women’s roles, and about race, but above all it is a novel of the city. Characterized by a chaotic network of wealth, race, and culture, Zadie Smith’s urban landscape is fertile ground for storytelling. While the narrative is not seamless, NW does an impressive job of mapping the web of guilt, fear, love, and anxiety that defines Leah and Natalie as they negotiate their places in a rapidly-changing modern city.