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Natalie Blake is cracking up. So is her best friend, Leah Hanwell. They have maintained a close relationship despite class differences and their variant life trajectories, and now they find themselves in similarly disturbed circumstances. Neither is living the life they dreamed of when they were children; both are tortured by the economic and social disparities they see around them. Now, they may be desperate enough to make something happen, even if they don’t know what that is.
In Zadie Smith’s successful earlier works, White Teeth and On Beauty, she settled in with her characters and studied them carefully; as a poet, she provided diagnostic dissections of their behavior, and as a satirist, detected folly in their foibles. But in NW, Smith is not at her leisure. She returns to the racially variegated area of North West London, where she was born—the NW of the title—but she’s on a mission not to observe it but to crack it open.
Style trumps substance as Smith tumbles through a muddy approximation of stream-of-consciousness in one section, and an extended montage of minute scenes and tangential ruminations in another. Through quite a lot of the book, Smith’s prose is lucid and eloquent. In certain sections, including a business transaction between a recovering addict and a privileged collegiate type, she’s at her calmly incisive best. But more often, the fragmented snippets of the lives the author only gesture at her characters’ emotional states in hopes of making a grander point. Smith’s ambitions are admirable, but in looking to broaden her canvas, she neglects the patient attention to detail that fills her richest prose.