Zadie Smith - NW (4 stars)

Orange Prize-winner's fourth novel breathes and mutates like the city it encapsulates

Zadie Smith - NW

The fourth novel from Orange Prize-winner Zadie Smith takes its title from a universal urban sign-post, that of the North-West district in a(ny) city. But its geographic, social and cultural landmarks are so embedded in Smith’s hometown of London (the tube map, Edgware Road, Notting Hill Carnival) that, really, it couldn’t be anywhere else.

NW’s narrative, chronology and points of view breathe and mutate, just like the city, as Smith’s colourful prose and patois makes way for a stand-out centrepiece of humorous, tragic and enlightening vignettes. Most of them work as ultra-short stories in their own right with heir pace evoking the pit-stops on the Jubilee line.

NW entwines and rewinds the lives of four thirtysomething Londoners – Leah, Nathan, Felix and Natalie – who grew up together on a council estate. Natalie reinvents herself by discarding her birth name, Keisha (perhaps this is a wry nod to Smith herself adapting her moniker from Sadie, aged 14). But as with the metropolis, NW is as much about the anonymous characters that populate its busy streets and our (potential) relationships with these neighbouring strangers: the devastation they can cause; the tragedy that can befall them; the ways in which some incidents invoke shockwaves that reverberate long after the event.

Smith’s treatise on love, race, friendship, family and change (or the impossibility thereof) is rooted in recent time, as evinced by references to the Kensal Rise hurricane, the loss of Kilburn Woolworth’s and it also makes reference to the recent demise (and social importance) of Kensal Rise Library. Despite its often destitute reality, NW reads like a love letter to a lost home. As a former inhabitant of NW, I found myself pining for streets and shops and basements I didn’t think I’d ever miss.

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