NW - Zadie Smith
Reading Smith's work over the years I had come to the rather ungenerous view that she was one of those literary prodigies who would slowly peter out. Her work went from staggering genius (White Teeth) to misunderstood masterpiece (The Autograph Man) to dull (On Beauty) to overly didactic (Changing my Mind: Occasional Essays). The gap between On Beauty (which came out in 2005) and NW (2012) made it seem like even Smith was bored of writing fiction so I had my reservations when it came to reading her latest work. How wrong I was.
Set in North West London, where Smith herself grew up, NW is a sprawling magnificent work full of life and beauty and energy. Much like her first, much acclaimed, novel, NW is less of a novel and more a collection of large intertwined novella-like pieces that work perfectly well on their own and yet when combined reflect off each other to provide insight and depth. Like in NDiaye's novel two closely connected stories about women bookend a more vaguely connected section about a man.
The two women protagonists of NW are Leah and Natalie, two best friends who grew up together in the council flats in Cauldwell and who as adults have a shadow of the close-knit friendship they had as girls. While the Leah section opens the book, and a second section, about a NW resident named Felix trying to get his life on track follows, it's the third section, devoted to Natalie, which is a flat out masterpiece. In hundreds of tiny fragments Smith traces Natalie's origins as a young girl called Keisha, through a name change to Natalie to her eventual escape from the tiny two bedroom apartment she shared with her parents and two siblings to her career as a barrister, her marriage to a wealthy man her complete and utter divorce from the poverty she knew as a child. Part of the reason Natalie's journey feels so real is because it lightly echoes Smith's own life trajectory. She too grew up in NW, changed her name as a teen (less dramatically from Sadie to Zadie), was hailed as a prodigy and gained money and success.
Perhaps the fusion of personal into fiction is what gives the section it's power, but there's no denying that Smith's writing is as sharp as ever, her insights, her wit, her ability to slip in and out of character's voices and accents magnetic and appealing. In the very last lines of the book Natalie phones in an anonymous tip to the police "disguising her voice in her voice" as Smith so beautifully puts it. This gift is something Smith too possesses.