Zadie Smith's London

Article excerpt

Zadie Smith's London

We began this London summer with a sprinkler ban to make up for three years of drought. At last the bans been lifted, after the wettest summer on record. But Zadie Smiths new novel, NW, which I've been reading as it rains, depends on a London so hot that her characters are bound to open their windows and doors and get out into the street.

There are four main characters, all in their late thirties, united by the school they went to and the housing estate where they lived with their families in a part of North-West London where Smith grew up, and where she still lives. Two of the four - Natalie and Leah - are still friends, though their lives have diverged: Natalie toward work in a high-flying city law firm, a rich husband and children; Leah to dull but useful work and a passionate marriage threatened by her determination to avoid having children. Both have secrets that are divulged to us but not to each other, and animosities. The boys they knew at school have had harder lives, chaotic ones, spelled out in poverty and drugs and aimless, ever-changing relations with women and with children. Yet Nathan, one of those boys, had been "the very definition of desire for girls who had previously only felt that way about certain fragrant erasers." Three of the four are black or blackish, one is white.

The novel tracks time and change "with the bright quickness of montage," as Leah remarks to herself when considering her rapid accomplishment of the things she has to do each day. Short chapters provide glimpses and moments rather as memory does. Occasionally, awkward lapses and omissions mimic the abbreviated language of thought and even of dreams, while chance and childhood circumstance work alongside effort and intention to influence these lives. The novel's effect, through its glittering fragments, is to suggest that we can never completely avoid responsibility for one another, that compassion may be corrosive and and is anyway not enough, and that we have to accept that people are just who they are, and are not explained by their race nor their class. …