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October 1, 2012 | by  | in Arts Books |
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Review – NW

Novel by Zadie Smith

For a novel that inhabits a very specific geography, Zadie Smith’s latest novel NW frequently suggests a more universal flavour. Perhaps reflective of the diversity of most cities, there are moments in Smith’s north London tableaux which could easily depict some suburbs of Wellington.

Take, for example, London’s Kings Cross, denoted under Smith’s hyper attentive gaze: “TV cable, computer cable, audiovisual cables, I give you good price, good price. Leaflets call 4 less, learn English, eyebrow wax, Falun Gong, have you accepted Jesus as your personal call plan?”. For all intents and purposes, this could easily be a list compiled during a stroll along Newtown’s Riddiford Street.

Beyond the textural details of place, Smith’s is a novel of unmistakable locality. The surface of modernity may be global phenomena— McDonalds, Blackberry devices, police sirens – but it is culture, race and class that rivet north London.

In NW Smith tracks four characters—Leah, Felix, Natalie and Nathan—who all grew up in the same council estate in north-west London. Despite the vastly different trajectories of their lives, the characters all orbit their childhood home with an almost fateful intensity. Smith uses the estate as a pivot on which she cycles through her characters’ stories and hangs their neuroses. There is more, it seems, to escaping your past than simply moving out.

Like the novel’s brightly-coloured cover, with its divergent diamond-shaped onion-skin layers, reading NW is a process of unwrapping. Admonishing a singular narrative voice in favour throughout, each of the novel’s four parts feel tonally distinct; squares in a quilted portrait.

The novel is not without its failings. There are a few moments where Smith’s stylistic ventures fail to justify their inclusion; a page of text shaped to depict an apple tree succeeds only in disenfranchising the reader. An occasionally cavalier approach to narrative cohesion begs the question: has Zadie Smith secretly been schooled by Manhire?

Despite these fleeting shortcomings and its weak final act, NW plots a confident path through the contradictions and conflicts of modern life. It throws into sharp relief the intensity of human interactions and especially those occasioned by urban and cultural realities.

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