Zadie Smith’s forthcoming novel, NW, confirms everything we already knew about her as a writer: She is witty, intelligent, observant, and impeccable with dialogue. It also shows us something we may not have seen or may have chosen to ignore in her other works: Zadie Smith makes mistakes. Zadie’s mistakes are permissible though; they give her a legitimate place amongst the characters. Much like the London neighborhood in which the novel is set, in which Zadie herself grew up, Zadie is an active character.
Each of the book’s four sections - Visitation, Guest, Host, and Crossing – are distinctly different. The perspectives shift, the writing style changes, even the breakdown of chapters is different from section to section. The first section follows Leah, the second, Felix, the third, fourth and fifth, Natalie (though the fifth is also titled Visitation - Leah’s section). Visitation also has two remarkably different writing styles in each appearance. It all seems a little haphazard; why should one section, one character’s story, be told through short, non-sequential snapshots, another in conventionally developed chapters? The dialogue, too, is structured differently from section to section.
While Natalie and Leah’s stories intersect and overlap because of their friendship, Felix seems like his own entity with only a brief shout-out in the conclusion.
If each section is considered independently, these differences don’t matter. Each section is nearly flawless. It was only when I stopped to consider the continuity of the novel when I finished that these differences stood out at all. Once you read the novel however, some of these choices will make sense. You’ll have to think about them, but the titles of the sections will find meaning in the characters’ stories, and Natalie’s history will explain why she dominates three sections. As for the unique writing styles, I’ve read some other early reviews that claim the dialogue in the first section is difficult to digest, lacking conventional quotations and tags. Really, it’s the perfect adjunct to Leah’s story.
Smith writes books about people. Little in the way of action occurs in this novel (when it does it feels distant and removed), but that’s just the way it should be. The thoughts, the insecurities, the relationships of the characters take precedent. The characters conceptualize identity – how we see ourselves, how others see us, how none of it really matters, and yet we care anyway.
Maybe none of this matter. It really doesn’t. NW is fantastic. It’s incredibly insightful. It points out phenomena I’ve noticed, but never actively processed. It’s everything I came to expect from Zadie Smith, and whatever she set out to achieve with her new novel, I don’t doubt she achieves. It was a book I had to sit and think about after reading, and that’s always a good thing.
No doubt, NW is a perfect example of contemporary, English-language literature. The novel appears to be aware of its flaws, but it owns them as a sort of conscious writing. It’s writing that knows it’s writing.