Book Review: 'NW' by Zadie Smith

News from abroad as featured in the September 2012 issue of MORE

by Alice LaPlante
nw image
Photograph: Avery Powell

For those who love this writer’s work (and they are many), the seven years since On Beauty was published have been long ones. But now comes NW, an astonishing and eloquent novel that is by turns funny and heartbreaking, with flights of language and emotional insight so true, so honest, as to make us forget the wait. “NW” stands for northwest London. There, in a public housing development that reflects all the errors of 1970s urban planning—large, anonymous blocks of cramped and characterless flats—best friends Leah and Natalie (née Keisha) survive forays into easy drugs and early sex to flourish both emotionally and physically. They make it out to universities and lives beyond the projects. Leah lands a job with a social services agency as well as a loving, passionate husband; Natalie, more spectacularly, becomes a successful barrister, wife of a wealthy Italian financial-services professional and mother of two pampered children who will never suffer privations as she did, at least not in any obvious ways. But nothing about NW, the novel or the neighborhood, is obvious, and both Leah and Natalie have their secrets, which have the potential to explode their carefully and painfully constructed lives. Smith renders northwest London so vividly that her vision of its neighborhoods and their inhabitants will indelibly frame the experiences of anyone who decides to travel there after reading this book.

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