‘NW’ explores life’s possibilities, limits

NW. By Zadie Smith. Penguin Press. 401 pages. $26.95.

Zadie Smith, reacting to one of the only negative reviews of her first novel, the generous and jazzy “White Teeth,” described the book as “the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired, tap-dancing 10-year-old.” Twelve years later, she’s self-deprecating again, telling interviewers that “NW,” her first novel in seven years, is a “very small book.”

Don’t accept her modest appraisal. “NW” is a hefty book that takes on large subjects: boom and bust in every arena; the ties of identity, place and the past; the possibilities for escape.

Through refracting scenarios and characters, Smith asks if it’s possible to be the “sole author” of one’s own life, when so many other hands want to mark the script.

“NW” is a thick mix of philosophy and comedy, with a huge cast of characters. As in her other novels, Smith shapes her ideas through complementary pairs of characters. In “White Teeth,” she gave us two Army friends, one accepting of life’s accidental structures and the other intent on controlling them. In “On Beauty,” the poles are tradition and progress embodied in a couple of professors who are friendly rivals.

“NW” centers on Leah Hanwell and Keisha Blake, lifelong friends who grew up in Caldwell, a housing estate in London’s Northwest quadrant, which is also Smith’s home neighborhood.

In the novel’s present time, they are in their mid-30s, each married, seemingly happy and employed. Leah, who is white and of Irish descent, hasn’t branched far from where she started: She’s “as faithful in her allegiance to this two-mile square of the city as other people are to their families.” She’s barely hanging on financially, but her work with local charities is worthy.

Keisha is black with Jamaican roots. She has spent her life casting off her background to become Natalie, a crackerjack barrister and mother of two. In the end, she feels like a person in drag (“Daughter Drag. Sister Drag. Mother Drag. Wife Drag.”).

To tell this story of concealment and existential crisis, Smith uses a structure that holds back connecting details or only lets us understand their importance long after the fact. Be warned: Piecing it all together can be frustrating. Each of the novel’s five sections is told in its own voice and style, much of it stream-of-consciousness.

Keisha’s section, titled “Host,” consists of 185 snapshot-like fragments. Throughout, Smith works her wizardry, grabbing us with her scene-making prowess and nailing the pitch and tone of everyday speech. Old Rastafarians, young dope fiends, down-and-outers, up-and-comers: everyone speaks in language that zings.

Smith writes in “Changing My Mind,” her collection of essays, that a line spoken by Katharine Hepburn in “The Philadelphia Story” is still her literary “lodestar”: “The time to make up your mind about people is never.”

Despite a pat, overly dramatic conclusion, “NW” defers judgments and leaves us with a sense of both possibility and limitation. No one is stranded where they are, but new freedoms can lead to new confinements.

Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.