By Zadie Smith

(Penguin, $26.95, 416 pages)

Who is this author?

Zadie Smith has one of the brightest younger voices in British literature. Now 36, she has written notable books – the novels “White Teeth,” “The Autograph Man” and “On Beauty” and the essay collection “Changing My Mind,” as well as sharply conceived cultural and arts criticism. She wrote the much-praised “White Teeth” while attending Cambridge and has earned comparisons to no less than Dickens and Rushdie. It won the Guardian First Book Award, the Whitbread First Novel Award, and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and she went on to earn other literary honors. Born to a British father and Jamaican mother in an ethnically mixed part of Northwest London – that’s the NW that gives her latest book its title – she was named Sadie, but llater changed it to Zadie because, she told the Guardian newspaper, “it seemed right, exotic, different.” “NW” is her latest, and eagerly awaited, novel. It has earned high praise from many reviewers and has baffled others, but any Zadie Smith book is worth your consideration.

What is this book about?

Four characters are the central focus of this book about people growing up in Northwest London in the Caldwell council estates, which is what the British call public housing, who take widely and wildly divergent paths as adults. Central  is Natalie Blake, born Keisha, who has left behind her name and her impoverished family, with its many discontents and failings, and has become a gentrified woman – a barrister married to a wealthy man, with children and all the attendant trappings of success. Some call her a “coconut” – dark outside, white inside – and you probably will not be surprised to learn that wealth and success have not brought her happiness. Since childhood, Natalie/Keisha’s life has been entwined with that of Leah Hanwell, who is white and married to an African hairdresser, Michel. Then there’s Nathan, whom the women have known since childhood and who is barely surviving a drug-filled life, and Felix, who has renounced the druggie life and is looking to move up.

Those are the people, but  another important aspect to this book is the fractured story-telling, a Joycean jam of short chapters, numbered sections, shifting tones, juggled chronologies, poetry, online chats and other devices that some will find rewarding to explore, and others, to be honest, will find annoying.

Why you’ll like it:

“NW” is a challenge to the casual reader and a feast for those who admire authors who make them stretch. With its intersecting stories and wide sweep from childhood to adulthood, there is much to savor here, and the deliberate use of different forms and styles of writing serves to engage those willing to make their way into the story. For what it’s worth, I read a chapter that appeared in The New Yorker and found the style quite easy to read.

What others are saying:

“[In] Smith’s excellent and captivating new novel… the lines dividing neighbors from strangers are not always clear or permanent. The book takes place in NW London, where characters intersect and circumvent one another’s lives and, in the process, expose their ethnic distinctions and class transformations, their relationships and their secrets. Leah’s childhood best friend Natalie Blake (formerly Keisha Blake) eventually becomes the primary focus and the contrast between the two women allows for some of the book’s most compelling insights, namely the inevitability of vs. the disinterest in becoming a mother, which Natalie has done and Leah decisively has not. The book’s middle section introduces Felix Cooper, a friend of neither woman, but whose fate will affect them both. Smith’s masterful ability to suspend all these bits and parts in the amber which is London refracts light, history, and the humane beauty of seeing everything at once,” says Publishers Weekly.

Amazon Best Books of the Month for September says: “Zadie Smith’s “NW,” an ode to the neighborhoods of northwest London where the author came of age, feels like a work in progress. For most writers, that would be a detriment. But in this case, the sense of imperfection feels like a privilege: a peek inside the fascinating brain of one of the most interesting writers of her generation. Smith plays extensively with form and style–moving from screenplay-like dialogue to extremely short stories, from the first person to the third–but her characters don’t matter as much as their setting. Smith is a master of literary cinematography. It’s easy to picture her creations, flaws ablaze, as they walk the streets of London.”

“…a complicated novel that’s endlessly fascinating…The impression of Smith’s casual brilliance is what constantly surprises, the way she tosses off insights about parenting and work that you’ve felt in some nebulous way but never been able to articulate. While her own voice can seem crisp and clinical, it’s tinged with irony, and her dialogue ripples off the page in full stereo… Smith makes no accommodation for the distracted reader—or even the reader who demands a clear itinerary. But if you’re willing to let it work on you, to hear all these voices and allow the details to come into focus when Smith wants them to, you’ll be privy to an extraordinary vision of our age,” says Ron Charles in the Washington Post.

When is it available?

You can get to “NW” now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Mark Twain Branch.

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