Was Zadie Smith's Novel 'NW' Worth The Wait?

Zadie Smith wrote her last novel On Beauty seven years ago — a long time in the anxious world of publishing. Her new novel NW was released in the U.S. on Monday. Critic Maureen Corrigan asks: Was it worth the wait?

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Although she's been writing a lot of nonfiction recently, Zadie Smith's last novel, "On Beauty," came out seven years ago, which is a long time in the anxious world of publishing. This week, her new novel, called "NW," came out in this country. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has been considering the crucial question: Was it worth the wait?

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: This fall book season is bristling with lots of new novels that share the distinction of being long-awaited. Prominent authors like Martin Amis, Tom Wolfe, Michael Chabon and Zadie Smith have kept readers waiting for a while, which means, of course, that our expectations are as high as an elephant's eye. Trim them down a bit. That's my advice, at least in the case of Zadie Smith's just-published novel "NW."

Like a stalk of late-summer corn that's blighted at its very tip, "NW's" narrative is four-fifths ripe, golden deliciousness, one-fifth barren cob. As she did in her terrific debut "White Teeth," Smith gives us an ambitious city novel in "NW." Smith structures her story around the lives of four people, now in their 30s, who grew up in the same subsidized housing estate in Northwest London, definitely not one of the posher districts of the city where Wills and Kate might party in their downtime.

Here's a slice of that Northwest London skyline as seen from a train: ungentrified, ungentrifiable, boom and bust never come here. Here bust is permanent. Disappointed city, living for those tired of their countries. As anyone who's read Smith's fiction knows, her genius dwells in her language. She excels at Gertrude Stein-inspired lines that whip together sound and nonsense and fleeting zigzags of insight.

In "NW," the two female members of this dusty quartet of former project kids supply most of the conversation, as well as internal monologue. Natalie Blake, whose first name used to be Keisha, has climbed the highest on the social ladder. She's now a barrister, an all-too-rare black face in a white wig, and she's married with two children.

Thinking back to a fellow scholarship student at university who came from an even rougher district and who eventually flunked out, Natalie empathetically reflects that the girl had been asked to pass the entirety of herself through a hole that would accept only part.

Growing up, Natalie's best friend was a red-haired Irish girl named Leah, who's now married to a hairdresser of French-African descent. These days, Leah works at the local housing office, and as the only white girl with a college education in the place, she's got to monitor herself. Here's Leah sitting at a meeting in the office, drifting in and out of a stream-of-consciousness riff about her boss.

Former prison guard, social worker, local counselor - how did she get anything done with those talons, long and curved and painted with miniature renderings of the Jamaican flag? Clawed her way up through the system, born and bred, is weary of those like Leah, whose degrees have thus installed them. To the boss, a university degree is like a bungee cord, lowering in and pulling out with dangerous velocity.

The rich, intertwining plotlines of "NW" emerge out of the old history shared by the characters, as well as through the chance encounters - some brutal - that any city affords. In the first pages of the novel, Leah opens her front door to a hysterical young girl begging for money. Unwittingly, Leah has also ushered in chaos.

Natalie struggles with holding on to her authentic self, even as more and more she goes through her life feeling as though she's in drag, mother drag, wife drag, court drag, rich drag, poor drag, British drag, Jamaican drag. It's Natalie's bizarre remedy for her own alienation, however, that causes this novel to crumble in its final 70 pages or so, endangering its credibility and the wealth of its accumulated, smart observations about contemporary London.

I hope that Smith might one day have the chance for a rewrite that was afforded to that other fine London novelist, Charles Dickens. "Great Expectations" actually didn't need that rewrite. Dickens was only bowing to popular opinion when he tried to force a treacly, conventional finale on his original version of the novel.

With the preposterous ending of "NW," however, Smith has nowhere to go but up.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "NW" by Zadie Smith. You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter, @nprfreshair, and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.

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