Reading Zadie Smith’s first novel in seven years reminded me constantly of early Dire Straits, specifically, 1978’s Dire Straits and 1979’s Communique. I realize these are dated references. Nonetheless, London—grubby, druggy, crime-ridden, mixed-race, council-flat London—are Smith and Mark Knopfler’s shared muse. Both are obsessed with diction in a way only those from the British Isles, bearing the brunt of language-as-caste system, can be. Consider the songs “Portobello Belle”, “Down to the Waterline”, “Six Blade Knife”, “Wild West End”. If NW had a soundtrack, a Dire Straits mixtape would be it.
If London is Smith’s muse, race powers her characters. Smith herself is the product of a Caucasian father and Jamaican mother, and she peoples her work with bi-racial characters, mixed marriages, and the children of these unions. NW is no exception, the characters a mishmash of heritages: Caucasian, Jamaican, Caribbean, Nigerian. Mothers-in-law are Irish and Italian and unfazed by their children’s marital choices. The question of biracial children is moot. As an Italian-Trinidadian character says to a white woman married to a French African: “Of course, I’m already divided in half… When you guys have kids, they’ll know what I mean.”
NW is set in the Caldwell Council Estates—what American readers would call the projects. The book is divided into four sections, each following a different character in the Estate. This allows Smith room to comment extensively on a world of variation in a single complex of flats. And it is variable: from the drug-addled Nathan Bogle to Natalie Blake, wealthy barrister, we see who got out, how, and the ways nobody truly escapes their past.
NW begins with Leah Hanwell. Leah is of Irish stock, red-headed and fair skinned, perpetually avoiding the sun. She is married to Michel, a Frenchman of African descent, as dark as she is fair. Theirs is a mostly happy marriage, children being the stumbling block. Leah doesn’t want them. Michel does. Michel also wants, urgently, to continue their economic trajectory upward, far from Caldwell Estates. Leah is content with her non-profit job and their simple flat.
She is dawdling one afternoon when the drug-addicted Shar pounds on her door, literally falling into Leah’s living room, sobbing for help of the financial kind. Leah gives it to her, setting off a series of events that reverberate through the book. Shar does not need the money to reach her ailing mother in hospital; her ruse, and Leah’s inability to recognize it, infuriates Michel and Leah’s mother, Pauline. Michel’s manly attempts to get the money back have tragic results: Smith’s corner of London is raw place. Nobody is exempt from the cruelty of the streets.
In a telling scene, Leah is teased by her office-mates—all either African or Caribbean—about stealing one of the “good brothers”. Smith’s dialogue during this exchange appears as smaller, darker font than the rest of the text, lacking conventional punctuation. The sentences are spaced at varying intervals on the page and make full use of slang, the net effect reflecting an actual conversation by a multiple speakers who know one another well. The in-jokes and colloquial speech take the reader into the office, where a group of black women are ganging up on the sole white woman for stealing a good black man, only to back off:
Yeah, but they’re all already taken!
By the white girls!
Nah, don’t be like that. Leah she’s only messing with you.
The book shifts from Leah to Felix, another inhabitant of Caldwell Estates. Felix’s father is Jamaican, his mother a drug addict who abandoned her four children. Felix, now 32, is trying to reassemble his life after years of drug and alcohol addiction. Felix’s portion of the book follows him around “his” part of London for the better part of a day. He begins by waking at his lover Grace’s apartment. He is deeply in love with Grace, and finds her apartment a magical, extremely feminine place.
Nonetheless, there is the day’s business to attend, so he pushes himself from bed and makes his rounds: to his father’s overcrowded, overheated apartment, to meet a young white man about purchasing a destroyed MG Midget, which he secretly hopes to repair for Grace, and his final errand: a visit to his lover Annie’s house. He intends to end the relationship.
Annie trained to be a dancer, but that never happened; she is now holed up in her apartment, a drugged yet intelligent recluse. Felix has every intention of rapidly breaking things off, but Annie won’t let him off that easily: she is a Zadie Smith invention, after all. She inquires about his family, then mocks his latest aspirations—an apprenticeship at a vintage car shop, a drug-free life with Grace—with the knowing expertise only a sharp-tongued, long-time lover can summon. She’s more than Felix can deal with. Cowed, he flees Annie’s cramped quarters. Yet even as Felix walks away, trying to ignore Annie’s sobs, you cannot help but sympathize and hope for him.
From Felix the book moves to Keisha, now Natalie. Smith, who plays with postmodern flourishes throughout the book—email conversations, unconventional dialogue structures, long, unpunctuated passages, stretches further with Keisha. This part of the text (to use that pomo term) is divided into 185 numbered paragraphs, taking the reader from Keisha’s childhood to adulthood. Along the way the reader is meant to understand the barriers black women face while pursuing an education in English law, the problems that arise when your surpass your family fiscally and educationally, and what happens when you are unable to reconcile who you were with what you have become.
The final section of NW is devoted, indirectly, to Nathan Bogle, a classmate of Leah and Keisha’s. As a young man Nathan was a handsome, gifted athlete who was expected to turn professional. When he could not, he returned to the Estate and fell into heavy drug use. Now homeless, he has become—almost—one of the invisible we prefer to walk past. In a long encounter with another character, it becomes impossible to ignore the reasons Bogle has become the person he is—drug addled, ill, involved in crime—and the ways others are culpable in his descent.
Smith’s forte has always been capacious books enfolding multiple cultures into one galloping, engrossing plot. In NW, she’s concerned with the music her characters listen to, the clothes they wear, the food they eat, their speech. All are indicative of class, culture, money. At a dinner party given by Natalie and her husband, Frank, Smith punctures the upper middle class (what’s left of them, anyway) with withering precision: Leah’s exchange with Shar is related as an amusing anecdote. Amid a discussion of do-gooding and tsk-tsking come requests to pass the creme fraïche, the green beans with shaved almonds, the lemon tart.
On the other side of town, Felix tries in vain to ask two “bruvs” to shift a bit so a heavily pregnant woman may sit down on the bus. Felix and the woman are met with derision.
Smith makes no pleas. She doesn’t ask us to accept multiculturalism or general acceptance of the other, much less help for the poor. She’s more interested in getting the nuances down, the big, sprawling picture that is London in the late ‘90s. She offers no solutions. It may be the problems she presents have none. But few writers today—Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen (yeah, yeah, he can be obnoxious and bird-obsessed) come to mind—can capture an entire world, making all the ends meet in such a way that the place makes, however briefly, perfect sense.