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Same Streets, Different Lives In 'NW' London

British novelist Zadie Smith is also the author of <em>White Teeth</em>, <em>The Autograph Man</em> and <em>On Beauty. </em>In her latest book, <em>NW</em>, she lays out a problem for readers: Do people get what they deserve?
Tiziana Fabi
AFP/Getty Images
British novelist Zadie Smith is also the author of White Teeth, The Autograph Man and On Beauty. In her latest book, NW, she lays out a problem for readers: Do people get what they deserve?

Writer Zadie Smith burst onto the literary scene with her first novel White Teeth more than a decade ago. Set in the Northwest London neighborhood where she grew up, White Teeth captured the diverse, vibrant rhythms of a city in transition. Smith returns to the neighborhood in her new novel, NW, but this is a sobering homecoming.

Smith's mischievous sense of humor is still on full display in NW as is her playful love of language. But this is an older, perhaps wiser, writer than the young woman who dazzled readers with her first book. Where White Teeth was a wild ride into a whole new world, NW is a more complex exploration of where the inhabitants of that world have landed.

Smith says her decision to return to her old haunts for the setting of this novel was, in part, purely pragmatic. "I knew I was going to write a book which was in some ways difficult stylistically and difficult for me to write, so I just wanted to give myself a break," she says. "I needed one thing which was stable that I knew — and the streets I do know and they don't take research and I don't need to use Google maps; they're kind of a deep knowledge in me."

The story is told in four sections, each focusing on one of four characters and each written in a different style. But Smith says she doesn't think of the writing in NW as experimental.

"It was about trying to be closer to reality — more real and more honest," she says. "Life seems to be speeding up: It used to be that I felt like I was 5 for 100 years and now I've been 32 for 10 seconds. And that concept — which I don't mean that as an experimental statement or even a particularly theoretical statement — it's a genuine feeling, but most narrative doesn't get anywhere close to replicating that genuine feeling. So I wanted to try and do that."

The central relationship in the book is the lifelong friendship between Natalie and Leah. They grew up in the same housing development, attended the same school, played in the same parks. But as adults, their lives have spun in different directions. Leah works for a charity and is married to a hairdresser. She is paralyzed with self-doubt, while her best friend Natalie, a wealthy and successful lawyer, seems certain she is going in the right direction. Smith tells Leah's story in a kind of languid stream of consciousness while Natalie's narrative is made up of 185 separate segments, some as short as one sentence.

"[Natalie] is this character with an incredible kind of gift for the future," Smith explains. "She's so sure her life is moving in this rational, forward momentum, so I wanted to give her a narrative which replicated that feeling. It's certainly not the way I feel when I'm living my life. But Natalie is so forceful in that way — she's always looking ahead. And also I ... was reading a lot of philosophy and things that are separated into that kind of numbered argument. I thought it would be interesting to present a life in that way."

Natalie and Leah still live in the same neighborhood where they grew up, but Natalie now lives in a big house overlooking a park. Married to a wealthy man, the mother of two children, she hosts elegant dinner parties and casual brunches that make Leah uncomfortable. To Leah, it seems as though her friend has crossed over into a different class and a different world.

The two main male characters in the novel, Nathan and Felix, don't know each other and their lives only intersect momentarily, with profound consequences. Felix, the youngest of the four, seems just on the brink of setting his life straight. Nathan, who went to school with Leah and Natalie, has fallen on hard times, though he retains some of the charm that once made him the object of a school-girl crush. Smith has chosen to let readers get to know Nathan primarily through dialogue — though a voice that is entirely his own.

"I was really struck ... during the riots in London," she says. "So many people so willing to stand up and describe or comment or explain the behavior of young black men. People who have never met a young black man unless it was to cross the street to avoid him. I found all that commentary so tiring, this assumption of understanding. In Nathan's case, I wanted to leave him alone. I wanted him to speak with his own voice, as much as that is possible in fiction, and just to exist outside of commentary or control."

Smith never mentions that Nathan is black. In fact, she never describes the race of any of her characters — unless the person is white. Smith says she doesn't really expect all readers to notice that, but she liked turning the idea of race on its head.

"I grew up reading a generation of American and English people like [Saul] Bellow, [John] Updike or [Martin] Amis. Everybody's neutral unless they're black — then you hear about it: the black man, the black woman, the black person. Of course, if you happen to be black the world doesn't look that way to you. I just wanted to try and create perhaps a sense of alienation and otherness in this person, the white reader, to remind them that they are not neutral to other people."

At the end of her novel, Smith leaves the reader with this question: How is it that four people can begin their lives in roughly the same set of circumstances and yet end up in such different places? It's a question Smith says she has no intention to answer.

"I really meant it to be a question for every reader," she says. "The question of whether people 'get what they deserve.' It's in one way just a simple demotic thing that people say to each other, but in the end it's a very serious ethical question. Whether you believe that or not creates all kind of political difference and moral difference so I don't want to enter into it. The book was written exactly for that reason, to create a little problem you enter and solve for yourself."

So far NW has been met with mixed reviews — some critics love it, others not so much. But Smith says she's not trying to create something that will please everyone. She says she loves novels, and she doesn't want them all to be the same. Smith loved writing this one because it was a challenge, and she leaves it to readers to take up the challenge, if they choose.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.