NW: A Novel
Penguin Press, $26.95, 416 pages
"When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?"
The question comes from a radical priest, hanged after England's 1381 Peasant Revolt. It's also both the epigraph to Zadie Smith's fourth novel and a question she explores in all of them, each of which maps the fault lines economic, racial and sexual dividing a city against itself.
Smith's latest marks a return to her native city; "NW" refers to a gentrifying area of London where she and the four main characters in this novel were raised.
Leah is a white, well-intentioned liberal in her mid-30s with a matching government job: distributing lottery proceeds to worthy charities. She is in a mixed-race marriage to a French-African hairdresser, who is intent on getting ahead and starting a family two things that mean little to her.
Leah's best friend since childhood is Natalie formerly Keisha a barrister who made it out of the projects where she and Leah were raised. "Nat is the girl done good from their thousand-kid madhouse," reflects Leah. "Done too good, maybe, to recall where she came from."
Felix is a 32-year-old auto mechanic, having shelved his dreams of making films after a long detour involving booze and drugs.
Lurking on the margins of these three individually presented stories is Nathan, the kid from the projects who never really left and who is caught between nostalgic images of his onetime potential and the thug he has become.
True to Nathan's fractured life, Smith doesn't give him a distinct narrative; his role is to interrupt others' stories, in a novel that plays with and repeatedly undermines the fantasy that any of us can be the "sole author," as Natalie puts it, of our lives.
Such interruptions are going to frustrate those among Smith's readers who are looking for a reprise of "White Teeth" (2000) or particularly "On Beauty" (2005) both outstanding novels and both fully invested in lyrical realism, with its commitment to rounded characters living richly appareled inner lives.
We get some of that vintage Smith in "NW," especially in the stories of Leah and of Felix, which together compose the first half of the novel. Both also exhibit Smith's sure command of dialogue, as we watch Leah try to say "hello" when a disturbing woman comes to her door, while Felix tries to say "goodbye," in a terrific set piece with an ex-lover.
But as Smith has made clear in recent essays, she has grown increasingly wary of a literary mode that helps us lose ourselves in fictional characters turned inward on themselves rather than finding ourselves through characters looking outward and interrogating us.
Smith gives us one of these characters in Natalie, who dominates the novel's third and longest section.
Natalie stalks us through 185 terse and hyperconscious subchapters, each titled, that trace her development from a verb to a noun Smith's way of describing our movement from those who are still becoming to those who have arrived.
Or who think they've arrived. While she moves from success to success, Natalie is clearly lost trying on ideologies, careers, motherhood and men like so many accessories, while being consumed by work and technology.
It's an ugly and splintered portrait of the way we live now where liberating fantasies of being able to change what we are whenever we want result in being clueless about who we are or where we're going.
Smith herself seems unsure of how to move forward; the conclusions to both Natalie's story and "NW" are arbitrary and unsatisfying. Maybe that's the point, in a novel in which recurring images of apple trees serve to remind us that the gates to paradise closed long ago.