“NW: A Novel" by Zadie Smith (Penguin Press, 416 pgs., $26.95)
“When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?"
The question comes from a radical priest, hanged after England’s 1381 Peasant Revolt. It’s also both the epigraph to Zadie Smith’s fourth novel and a question she explores in all of them, each of which maps the fault lines — economic, racial and sexual — dividing a city against itself.
Smith’s latest marks a return to her native city; “NW" refers to a now-gentrifying area of London where both she and the four main characters in this novel were raised.
Leah is a white, well-intentioned liberal in her mid-30s with a matching government job: distributing lottery proceeds to worthy charities. She is in a mixed-race marriage to a gorgeous French-African hairdresser, who is intent on getting ahead and starting a family — two things that mean little to her.
Leah’s best friend since childhood is Natalie — formerly Keisha — a barrister who made it out of the projects where she and Leah were raised. “Nat is the girl done good from their thousand-kid madhouse," reflects Leah. “Done too good, maybe, to recall where she came from."
Felix is a 32-year-old auto mechanic, having shelved his dreams of making films after a long detour involving too much booze and drugs.
Lurking on the margins of these three individually presented stories is Nathan, the kid from the projects who never really left — and who is caught between nostalgic images of his onetime potential and the smalltime thug he has since become.
True to Nathan’s fractured life, Smith doesn’t give him a distinct narrative; his role is to interrupt others’ stories, in a novel that plays with and repeatedly undermines the fantasy that any of us can be the “sole author," as Natalie puts it, of our lives.
Such interruptions are going to frustrate those among Smith’s readers who are looking for a reprise of “White Teeth" (2000) or particularly “On Beauty" (2005) — both outstanding novels and both fully invested in lyrical realism, with its commitment to rounded characters living richly appareled inner lives.
We get some of that vintage Smith in “NW," especially in the stories of Leah and of Felix, which together compose the first half of the novel. Both also exhibit Smith’s sure command of dialogue, as we watch Leah try to say “hello" when a disturbing woman comes to her door, while Felix tries to say “goodbye," in a terrific set piece involving his former lover.
But as Smith has made clear in recent essays, she has grown increasingly wary of a literary mode that helps us lose ourselves in fictional characters turned inward on themselves — rather than finding ourselves through characters looking outward and interrogating us.
Smith gives us one of these characters — reminiscent of those we meet when reading Jennifer Egan or David Foster Wallace — in Natalie, who dominates the novel’s third and longest section.
Smith herself seems unsure of how to move forward; the conclusions to both Natalie’s story and “NW" are arbitrary and unsatisfying. Maybe that’s the point, in a novel where recurring images of apple trees only serve to remind us that the gates to paradise closed a long time ago.