Negotiating life outside of London's Caldwell council estate is a little like surviving a video game for the sympathetic characters in British writer Zadie Smith’s most recent novel, NW. The NW stands for the gritty northwest corner of London, where this story takes place. Just like a video game, cantilevering to the next level involves luck, mobility, chance encounters, and the ability to beat perceived demons. The fictional housing project known as Caldie to locals is ground zero for Smith's thirty-something survivors who now cope with the vagaries of their life beyond their rough beginnings. At its core are Leah and Natalie, longtime best friends whose divergent paths belie their internal struggles to thrive. While Natalie in her dogged fashion goes about shedding her old life (she becomes a lawyer), Leah appears stuck in a morass of her own making. Their march toward college, adulthood, and marriage is not without the hardship of merging the past with a present that is strewn with self-doubt, regrettable decisions, and misguided envy. Along the way, their messy lives entwine with others from the old neighborhood, including likeable Felix, a recovering addict whose desire for a respectable life proves illusive.
No stranger to literary rebellion, Smith’s brassy tinkering with narrative style asks a lot of her readers. She divides the story into sections, with the largest given over to Natalie and conveyed in 185 snapshots, some only a sentence long. The author of several highly regarded novels, including White Teeth, Smith is adept at drawing out the heart and soul of her characters and sandwiching them between the rough edges of a diverse, violent, and modern city. In this case, it is a world too layered to fully understand and too fluid to remain still.