Zadie Smith’s humane, inventive new novel

Eight years after she published On Beauty – an astute, accomplished comedy of manners that was set in New York but paid abundant homage to EM Forster – Zadie Smith returns to the patch of land that she had exuberantly and inimitably made her own in her precocious 2000 debut, White Teeth. The novel’s title, NW, is actually the postal code for north-west London, a pocket of which – Willesden – was where Smith grew up, and where White Teeth was set. That is the locale for this new book, which is Smith’s most formally inventive one yet, as well as her most humane.

Leah Hanwell and Keisha Blake are neighbours and best friends as little girls. Keisha is geeky and gawky, determined to become a success and remake her life; Leah is less single-minded, torn between a youthful idealism and an adult cynicism. When they are adolescents, Keisha finds it is glamorous to be Leah’s friend. Once they are grown up, and Keisha (now called Natalie; as she rapidly leaves her past behind, she leaves behind the name that belonged to that past) marries well, has two adorable children and a very successful career, Leah is the one who has been left behind in every respect. The contours of the friendship change.

Smith uses the narrative of this friendship to tackle the big issues: race, class, a sense of home and belonging, love, parenthood, and the freedom of choice. Most of all, NW is a novel about making, remaking and unmaking our lives, about how, in the end, however hard we try, we stay chained in some way to the past we have tried to leave behind. But such is Smith’s lightness of touch that nowhere does NW become ponderous or didactic.

As evinced in her previous novels, Smith’s ear for dialogue is magnificent. She has said that she finds dialogue easy to write. Pitch perfect on the page, it is always a joy to read. Her sense of place is just as unerring. NW is a hymn to London, to all the variety, peculiarities, wretchedness and expansiveness particular to that city.

If On Beauty had one flaw, it was that it was a hundred-odd pages longer than it could have been. NW is just the right length. It is also shorn of the hyperbole that some of Smith’s early writing had.

Zadie Smith is getting better and better. And she is only 37.

You can listen to her talk about her new novel here.

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