Zadie Smith's fourth novel, NW, is a messy, meandering, but ultimately powerful portrait of class and identity in multicultural London. Set in the area where Smith grew up the NW of the title the book doesn't bother with much of a plot. Instead Smith follows a handful of mostly well-drawn characters as they ramble through a series of uncomfortable encounters and confrontations, the implications of which only slowly come into focus.
NW's central duo is Natalie Blake and Leah Hanwell, who grew up together in a working-class council estate and have been best friends since they were 4. Now in their mid-30s, they've grown apart. Natalie has reinvented herself as a successful corporate lawyer, ditching her birth name, Keisha, and distancing herself from her background. Leah works for a charity and remains more tied to the somewhat gritty circumstances in which they were raised. Both, it eventually becomes clear, are uncertain about the directions their lives have taken. Natalie is the book's most vivid figure, and her struggle to find her place in the world and to deal with the consequences of her choices gives NW much of its emotional heft.
Episodic and oddly structured (a large chunk is told through 185 numbered mini-chapters), NW can be confusing. Smith jumps into conversations midthought, and the narrative is fractured in a way that makes sense only at the book's end. The effect is deliberately disorienting; the reader's discomfort underscores the unease that Smith's characters feel. But she manages to pull it all together. You may find yourself laboring to reach the last page and then immediately flipping back to start from the beginning. B