Contemporary British writers have given us many different versions of London, from Ian MacEwan’s “Saturday” to Monica Ali’s “Brick Lane,” from Rose Tremain’s “The Road Home” to Alan Hollinghurst’s “The Line of Beauty.” But one thing these writers agree on is that London is a place of great possibilities, good and bad, and that race and class are crucial playing cards. In her exuberant first novel, “White Teeth,” Zadie Smith created her own vision of the city. Now, in “NW,” she returns to this territory, specifically to that area of northwest London around Kilburn and Willesden that most tourists — and probably many Londoners — seldom visit.
At the heart of “NW” is the council estate of Caldwell and the long friendship between Leah and Natalie, who grew up there and who have each succeeded, through luck and hard work, in going to university and finding good jobs: pale-skinned Leah as a social worker, ebony-skinned Natalie as a barrister. But geographically, and as it turns out psychically, neither has traveled far from Caldwell; each is drawn back to the places and people she has worked so hard to escape.
“NW’’ is divided into five parts — “Visitation,” “Guest,” “Host,” “Crossing,” and “Visitation” — and these in turn are mostly divided into short sections, which are often numbered, or titled, or both. But each section takes a somewhat different approach as Smith follows Leah, Natalie, and her two central male characters, Felix and Nathan, who also grew up in Caldwell.
The novel opens with Leah, the social worker, answering her doorbell one April afternoon. On the doorstep is a woman, a stranger, who claims to live round the corner. “Shar is tiny. Her skin looks papery and dry, with patches of psoriasis on the forehead and on the jaw. The face is familiar . . . A peculiarity of London villages: faces without names.” Shar tells a garbled story; her mother has had a heart attack, and she needs to get to the hospital. Leah orders her a taxi. While the two women wait they talk about Leah’s old school and her newly discovered pregnancy. The taxi comes and Shar, promising to repay the money she’s borrowed, bids Leah farewell. “[A]lready the grandeur of experience,” Leah thinks, “threatens to flatten into the conventional, into anecdote: only thirty pounds, only an ill mother, neither a murder, nor a rape.”
But this first visitation does not flatten into anecdote. Even as it becomes apparent to everyone except Leah that Shar conned her, she begins to run into the other woman with eerie frequency. Shar flees, scolds, haunts her, and Leah’s life feels increasingly unsafe. As does her marriage to Michel, a hairdresser. Like Leah’s mother, he very much wants her to go forward, to have a baby. But “[f]or Leah, that way is not forward. She wants just him and her forever.”
Smith is devoted to her characters, but she is also devoted to her city, and “Visitation” is interrupted by descriptions both factual and vividly poetic. Section 9, for example, gives directions from “A: Yates Lane, London NW8, UK’’ to “B. Bartlett Avenue, London NW6 UK.” And section 10 begins “From A to B redux: Sweet stink of the hookah, couscous, kebab, exhaust fumes of a bus deadlock. 98, 16, 32, standing room only — quicker to walk!”
This narrative freedom serves Smith well when she leaves Leah and plunges into “Guest,” which follows the appealing Felix. Other than sharing the neighborhood, Felix seems at first to have no connection with Leah and Natalie. The reader must settle for enjoying the sensual detail of his day, and there is much to enjoy in this luxuriously-written section as Felix travels from Kilburn to W1 — a posh part of London — and back again. It would be a disservice to “NW’’ to reveal Felix’s fate; he takes part in some startling and wonderful conversations with his father and his ex-girlfriend before something more startling and less wonderful befalls him.
The last three parts of the novel — “Host,” “Crossing,” and “Visitation” — give Natalie’s life story, from her schooldays with Leah, when she went by the name Keisha, to her time as a student, a young barrister, a wife, and a mother. Perhaps it’s inevitable in any novel that follows several characters that the reader will have her favorite, so I’ll confess that Natalie is mine. Her pages contain so many vivid and painful insights, so many moments when I felt the rightness of a detail or an observation. The use of short sections — “147. Listings. On the website she was what everybody was looking for.’’ — brilliantly conveys how Natalie makes her way from council flat to elegant Victorian and the conflicted attitudes that lead her to jeopardize her perfect life.
But Smith has never been a writer who travels directly from A to B, from Kilburn to Oxford Circus, and “NW’’ forgoes some of the novel’s conventional pleasures, such as a strong plot, or the kind of suspense that accompanies plot. Although crimes are committed and, as the part titles testify, connections made, Smith is not interested in exploring the unbroken line of cause and effect. What “NW’’ does offer, in abundance, is the sense of being plunged with great immediacy into the lives of these characters and their neighborhood. How wonderful to have a new version of London to explore.