February 6, 2013
Vol: 20 No: 6

Arts & Entertainment

Border crossings

By Robert Alford , Contributing Writer

Book Review - NW: A Novel by Zadie Smith

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In “NW,” Zadie Smith tells us a story about the stories we tell ourselves — stories about who we are and how we came to be in our particular places in life. Although the characters in her novel hail from the same few city blocks in northwest London, they represent a collage of varying histories and cultures, and their stories reflect this range of origin and identity. But even in this space of shifting boundaries, where divisions of race, gender and sexuality seem more fluid and malleable than ever, one boundary remains unassailable: that of social class. Her characters’ attempts to navigate that remaining, seemingly impenetrable, divide form the contours of Smith’s own vivid and engaging story.

It’s no surprise that Smith would take the nature of story itself as the subject for her novel. Over the course of three previous novels, she has established herself as a highly accomplished storyteller who blends classic literary techniques with a modern, multicultural perspective. Continuing this tradition, “NW” is a dense yet captivating work that unites a spectrum of styles and voices into a seamless and satisfying whole.

“NW” centers upon the lives of two women, Leah and Natalie, who grew up together in Willesden, the same working class London neighborhood where Smith spent her own childhood. The events of the novel focus on each woman’s dissatisfaction with her marriage, and the disruption of their lives by two random events — a theft and a murder — that shatter their senses of self and security.

The book contains five sections, each written in a different style and presented through a variety of narrative voices and perspectives. “Visitation” focuses upon Leah’s relationship with her husband, Michel, and alternates between a dream-like, stream-of-consciousness internal narrative and sparse sections of dialogue that read like the lines of a screenplay. “Guest” tells the story of Felix, the 32-year-old son of poor Jamaican immigrants whose senseless murder has already been foretold by the time he appears in the novel. Here, Smith channels a traditional, almost Victorian, style to portray the day of his death.

“Host” employs a postmodernist mode of short, narrative vignettes to relate Natalie’s transformation from her poor, immigrant childhood to an adulthood of wealth, success and an unquestioning acceptance of her own upward mobility.

“Crossing” and a second “Visitation” end the book with a return to classic novelistic form.

Although this complex and at times disorienting pastiche of literary styles could detract from Smith’s story, each of these formal choices serves a very specific purpose with regard to the characters, plot and meaning of the novel as a whole. The startling juxtaposition between internal monologue and unadorned dialogue in the first “Visitation” conveys the irreconcilability of Leah’s inner desires and her outer circumstance. Take, for instance, the following passage in which Leah’s internal meditation on the interplay of love and time contrasts with Michel’s single-minded determination to have a child:

“Why must love move forward? Which way is forward? No one can say she has not been warned. No one can say that. A thirty-five-year-old woman married to a man she loves has most certainly been warned, should be paying attention, should be listening, and not at all surprised when her husband says

“— many days in which the woman is fertile. Only, I think, three. So it’s no good to just say ‘oh, it’ll happen when it will happen.’ We’re not so young. So we have to be a bit more, I mean, military about it, like plan.

“Objectively speaking, he is correct.”

Then in “Guest,” a sudden departure into authorial omniscience provides a panoramic vista of the multiplicity of lives contained within northwest London and creates a sense of empathy for the tragic figure of Felix, peaking at the moment of his death: “It couldn’t be oblivion as long as he could name it, and with this in mind he said aloud what had been done to him, what was being done to him, he tried to say it, he said nothing.”

And in the most brilliant section of the book, “Host,” a fragmented, yet neatly arranged structure, mirrors Natalie’s attempt to impose order upon her nebulous sense of self, as in the following section, titled ‘In Drag’: “Daughter drag. Sister drag. Mother drag. Wife drag. Court drag. Rich drag. Poor drag. British drag. Jamaican drag. Each required a different wardrobe. But when considering these various attitudes she struggled to think what would be the most authentic, or perhaps the least inauthentic.”

Only a master of the form could balance such a range of styles and voices within the span of a single novel, and Smith accomplishes this feat in “NW” with remarkable grace and precision. Moreover, her ability to achieve deep emotional resonance through her art and her irreverent and acerbic sense of humor make this book not just an aesthetic spectacle to behold, but also a joy to experience.

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