One of the New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Books of 2012
Set in northwest London, Zadie Smith’s brilliant tragicomic novel follows four locals—Leah, Natalie, Felix, and Nathan—as they try to make adult lives outside of Caldwell, the council estate of their childhood. In private houses and public parks, at work and at play, these Londoners inhabit a complicated place, as beautiful as it is brutal, where the thoroughfares hide the back alleys and taking the high road can sometimes lead you to a dead end. Depicting the modern urban zone—familiar to city-dwellers everywhere—NW is a quietly devastating novel of encounters, mercurial and vital, like the city itself.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
Even as longtime fans of Zadie Smith's seriocomic, multicultural stories of London, we were blown away by the emotional richness and complex artistry of this novel. Named for the downtrodden area that connects its characters, NW spends long, intimate stretches exploring everyday lives that feel compellingly real. Smith reveals her characters—like Leah, who’s clawed her way to the middle class but remains permanently uneasy, or Felix, who’s just kicked drugs but still finds ways to sabotage himself—through brilliant, nonlinear fragments. Their interrupted thoughts and half-finished conversations somehow fit together perfectly.
The reader first meets Leah Hanwell at her most vulnerable (some might say gullible): at home, when the doorbell rings and in tumbles a desperate, unknown but not unfamiliar woman, pleading for money, which Leah provides. Although this incident soon fades into an awkward anecdote shared later at awkward gatherings, it introduces the framework of Smith's (White Teeth) excellent and captivating new novel, in which the lines dividing neighbors from strangers are not always clear or permanent. The book takes place in NW London, where characters intersect and circumvent one another's lives and, in the process, expose their ethnic distinctions and class transformations, their relationships and their secrets. Leah's childhood best friend Natalie Blake (formerly Keisha Blake) eventually becomes the primary focus and the contrast between the two women allows for some of the book's most compelling insights, namely the inevitability of vs. the disinterest in becoming a mother, which Natalie has done and Leah decisively has not. The book's middle section introduces Felix Cooper, a friend of neither woman, but whose fate will affect them both. Smith's masterful ability to suspend all these bits and parts in the amber which is London refracts light, history, and the humane beauty of seeing everything at once.
Customer ReviewsSee All
I found the author’s voice a very unusual style that was hard for me to follow.
Smith is a masterful storyteller. Her novels never fail to consume me--the kind of books you are eager to fill any empty time with. NW has a forward momentum that also folds in beautiful, sometimes heart-breaking, moments of insight about how we are continually coming into ourselves, how we implicate and hurt others in the process, and how connected we really are even when it feels otherwise. Read NW, White Teeth, and On Beauty--each will pull you completely in, resonate & leave their own distinct mark long after the final page.
Bits and Pieces
The voices of the book are so strong. Readers may benefit from some familiarity with London and English slang, which this traveler does not have yet. I think the book hit its stride through the short chapters as Keisha became Natalie. Something about it didn't quite grab me, and I think it telling that it took me several months to finish. I made it though and am glad for it.