NW, by Zadie Smith. Penguin Press, 401 pp., $26.95.
"Who are you?" a man shouts at his wife at the climax of "NW," Zadie Smith's provocative latest novel. A universal question, but even more vexed if you are a product of the simmering multiracial stew of northwest London's working-class neighborhoods. As Smith, half-English and half-Jamaican, is.
Her protagonists, raised in the same housing project and friends since age 4, are Natalie and Leah, both in their mid-30s, married, employed. Natalie (nee Keisha) is black; Leah is white. Natalie, a lawyer, is "successful"; Leah, an outreach worker, less so. Both are quietly coming unstrung. Their pathways to this tipping point are a study in contrasts.
The narrative wanders in time and space, through the decades of Leah and Natalie's friendship and the neighborhoods of London NW, looping back on itself with small coincidences and shifting perspectives. What could have felt fragmented seems organic in Smith's handling.
We meet Leah first, lanky and red-haired, "a generous person, wide open to the entire world," though the world does not always repay her in kind. When a distraught and disheveled young woman pounds on her door, begging for help, Leah recognizes her from the "thousand-kid madhouse" that was their high school. That shared history, of course, does nothing to prevent the woman from carrying out a successful scam. Leah's husband, Michel, a hairdresser from Africa via Marseilles, is disgusted. "You have to work very hard to separate yourself from this drama below!" he tells her.
Natalie, to all appearances, has managed Michel's goal nicely: prestigious law practice; elegant half-Caribbean, half-Italian husband; two beautiful children; gorgeous Victorian a discreet distance from the old 'hood. "I just can't stand to see you all living like this," she tells a sister still living in the project. "No one in here is looking for your help!" her sister snaps.
Smith, whose previous novels include "White Teeth" and "On Beauty," is irresistibly good at conjuring convincing characters; she's less good at intersecting them convincingly. Leah yearns for a permanent young adulthood and recoils from the new mothers having babies all around her, "women for whom . . . 'you're next' does not sound like the cry of a guard in a dark place." Natalie has never truly been young, has worked relentlessly, and now finds herself "no longer an accidental guest at the table . . . but a host, with other hosts, continuing a tradition." A tradition that forces her to leave most of her original identity behind. The preoccupations of these women are vividly real but largely unrelated, their interactions oddly artificial.
It's easy to forget this, however, in pure enjoyment of a writer staging a master class in freestyle fiction writing. Smith mashes up voices and vignettes, poetry and instant messaging, bedroom preferences and murder, and keeps it all from collapsing into incoherent mush with deft, dry wit. "I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me," Leah hears over the radio. Smith defines characters worth reading.