With each new novel, acclaimed British author Zadie Smith seems as if she's reacting violently against the one before it. After the exuberant prose and plot of her sprawling, Rushdian debut, White Teeth, Smith's The Autograph Man was a slight, anarchic pop-cultural jaunt. On Beauty, her third, was an update of E.M. Forster's Howards End—a complexly developed domestic symphony weighed down with passive aggression and things left unsaid.
This year's NW (Penguin, 416 pages, $26.95) seems different. Smith has arrived at a sublimation of these pingponging extremes, a nonlinear calico of style and voice that somehow still offers the traditional novel's tea-cozied comforts: plot, character development, prolonged empathy, shared meaning.
The novel follows an array of characters who grew up in the projects of London's piss-poor Northwest sector. They are immigrants all, whether shanty Irish or African-Italian, and what concerns Smith throughout is often the conflict between what they want and where they came from—that fishy English calculus of authenticity, race and class.
The novel is constructed as a stutter of short sections, each with its own particular rules of construction and even punctuation. Character Leah Hanwell begins her quadrant of the book in difficult telegraph-of-consciousness prose, with a knock on the door by a drug addict she once knew from school; dialogue arrives as an unattributed incursion from somewhere seemingly outside the text. In contrast, the section belonging to Hanwell's much more orderly childhood friend, Keisha Blake, is a parade of paragraphs numbered and drolly labeled like chapters in an old children's book, narrated by an author who is very much in control.
NW is an often nervous book, with occasional bold failures; it is also one of the most affecting and adventurous big-ticket novels to have come out this year.
Until late in the book, Smith seems to willfully reject the traditional snowballing roll of novelistic weight; the book comes instead mostly in fragments, in telling scenes and moments of realization. But Smith's fluid prose nonetheless pushes the book along with the speed of a city train, through childhood crushes now crushed by addictions, the rush to an adulthood that proves inexplicably disappointing, the streets' constant and incidental danger, and especially the characters' perennially bruised notions of self.
It is somehow fitting, in a book so dominated by the mongrel nature of identity, that Smith would write about her native London with the vocabulary of her home country but also in the terse, propulsive sentences of her adopted America. No British nests of dependent clauses here: It is all clipped abandon, hurtling forward into a nothing that feels very much like life. And if it isn't life, it's the thing that life depends on.