Caldwell — the housing project where the characters were raised — is the only fictional place on a very real map … Though it remains absolutely rooted, stuck to the map, contexts change and narrative styles shift. This is a book in which you never know how things will come together or what will happen next … Smith’s previous novels have been exuberantly plotted, and were resolved in a highly ‘novelistic’ way. This book is much more tentative and touching in its conclusions … NW represents a deliberate undoing; an unpacking of Smith’s abundant narrative gifts to find a deeper truth, audacious and painful as that truth may be.
Smith’s fiction has never been this deadly, direct, or economical…NW is embroidered with eccentric flourishes—a (baffling) prose poem here, a section in numbered sequences there. And the staccato street scenes let her strut … Where, why, and how these women diverge is the book’s inquiry and one of Smith’s great obsessions: ideological differences between intimates, how we grow with—and apart—from the people we love best … She’s given us a book soggy with feelings but one that illustrates how political identities—race, class, sexual orientation—influence our putatively personal decisions, how our choices are as distinctive as our fingerprints.
Despite its postmodernist features, NW is essentially a bildungsroman with two protagonists who become friends as four-year-olds in a council estate called Caldwell in northwest London…The novel’s few transcendent moments are shared by the women, who are clearly ‘sisters’ in the deepest sense of the word … Keisha/Natalie is very likely the most sustained, sympathetic, and believable figure in all of Zadie Smith’s fiction, encompassing as she does an astonishing variety of characters and types … NW is an unexpectedly ironic companion novel to White Teeth, a darker and more nuanced portrait of a multiracial culture in the throes of a collective nervous breakdown. Its perimeters are forever changing, like its accents and the tenor of its neighborhoods.
Despite her often magical prose Ms. Smith does not manage to orchestrate such elements into a satisfying or original story, largely because her depictions of Leah and Natalie remain so slapdash and judgmental … Ms. Smith’s depiction of these women — not to mention, the novel’s absurdly melodramatic climax — is curiously haphazard … Ms. Smith’s attempts at satire — sending up snooty dinner parties and yuppie child care — are predictable in the extreme, as are her efforts to examine the psychological hold that class and money exert on rich and poor alike.
NW is less antic, outlandish and funny than Smith’s debut, and it also lacks the extraordinary ambient joyfulness of her third novel, On Beauty. It’s more sober, more formally adventurous and exhibits less confidence in what’s customarily referred to as ‘the human spirit’ … It’s a marvelously accomplished work, perhaps her most polished yet, but its appeal lies in a quiet, even chastened reassessment of her former brio … The question of who makes it out of Caldwell and why, as well as the possibility of ever entirely escaping it, haunts NW.
… a big, challenging new novel about the forces that poison our dreams of economic ascendancy. The title is the only thing abbreviated about NW. Everything else is luxuriously spun out, pulled and examined from various angles by an author who, like London, seems to have a camera on every street corner … [Felix’s] section — really a masterful novella in its own right — seems at first like a lengthy aside from the story of Leah and Natalie, but nothing is accidental in this tale of collision and ambition … 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.
In style, voice and the interplay of influences, NW is a perplexing creation. Long before the book’s larger structure becomes apparent, the story has an ominous tone. The texture of the prose is still distinctly Smith’s, but its color has changed, a familiar, bright picture seen through smudged and darkened glass. Sentences are curt and clipped, meted out in stingy servings of nouns and verbs denied the luxury of richer grammar … [Smith’s] control over the proceedings has slipped. Her hasty solution is worse than hollow; it’s without sense, a sacrifice of character to some principle of structure whose purpose remains obscure.
[Ms. Smith] creates full, sympathetic characters; she writes a smart, funny, but never too-knowing prose; and she remains an unerring observer of behavior and language, of the way people today talk, dress, act and feel (and even how they send text messages). These strengths combine to make her, as so many of the best English novelists have been, a sharp diagnostician of class … Each of the novel's sections ends with a scene of violence, something Ms. Smith presents as inescapable in northwest London. Some characters die from it, others survive, but none are unscathed. What Ms. Smith offers in this absorbing novel is a study in the limits of freedom, the way family and class constrain the adult selves we make.
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 … 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 … 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.
NW signifies a departure for Smith in terms of her prose as well as her thematic scope: not only is NW a more poetic and abstract novel, but it is also one that calls iteratively to its reader to ‘keep up!’ Indeed, it is in the pacing and in the gaps amid the fractured narrative structure that the reader locates NW’s most incisive social criticisms, insights, and its numerous laments about what it means to be 'modern.' … It textualizes the chaotic world of the estate and its inhabitants while, at the same time, dramatizing the intense anguish, emptiness, and despair found in the psychological lives of her protagonists.
Smith is devoted to her characters, but she is also devoted to her city, and ‘Visitation’ is interrupted by descriptions both factual and vividly poetic … NW forgoes some of the novel’s conventional pleasures, such as a strong plot, or the kind of suspense that accompanies plot. Although crimes are committed and, as the part titles testify, connections made, Smith is not interested in exploring the unbroken line of cause and effect. What NW does offer, in abundance, is the sense of being plunged with great immediacy into the lives of these characters and their neighborhood.
… exuberant, lush with language, concerned with the relationship of people to their city, with framing not just the lives of characters but also an entire social milieu … NW suggests that she has found a way to balance these considerations — the experiential and the literary or, more accurately, the outer and the inner life. It is a terrific novel: deeply ambitious, an attempt to use literature as a kind of excavation, while at the same time remaining intensely readable, intensely human, a portrait of the way we live … The power of the novel is that she continually digs beneath these surfaces, exposing not hypocrisy so much as the emptiness that all her characters feel.
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 … 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.
NW shows a calmer author at work, one who pays more thoughtful attention to the intersection of place and character … Alas, although Smith has so much rich material to work with, the novel suffers from an overdose of cuteness. Smith leans too heavily on her authorial presence, controlling the way the words appear on the page, inserting line breaks, breaking her characters off mid-sentence, disrupting them as surely as engineering works on the Jubilee line. As a visual representation of the way people talk and interrupt each other, it sort of works, but it mainly feels inorganic to the material.
A bit wobbly and lopsided by design, NW is a hotchpotch in five parts … This is less a plot than a set of hooks on which Smith can hang her portrait of North-West London and sketches of characters from various points on the class spectrum. She’s interested in the way people become estranged from their homes even when they stay put … Why have I been such a conventional writer? Smith seems to have been asking herself in the process of writing the novel. Her first move is to dip into the modernist toolkit … This is Smith’s grimmest novel, and may be her best.