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Zadie Smith’s ‘NW’ Doesn’t Hang Together As Well As Her Previous Masterworks

British author Zadie Smith

“NW,” the title of Zadie Smith’s clunky new novel, refers to northwest London, where she grew up — a multicultural corner of the city that will be familiar to readers of her dazzling debut, “White Teeth.” In that earlier book Ms. Smith took a contemporary London mapped by writers like Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi and claimed it decisively as her own. There are glimpses, here and there in “NW,” of that cacophonous metropolis — a city in constant flux as waves of immigrants and fierce youth reinvent it year by year, day by day — but “NW” is a much smaller, more meager book than “White Teeth.”

It’s not that “NW” avoids big issues tackled by “White Teeth,” like the legacy of British colonialism or the weight of exile. It’s not that it eschews that earlier novel’s complex, tangled family portraits, illuminating the ways in which one generation embraces or rejects the expectations of its precursors. The lack of such elements might disappoint readers who were hoping for another big, splashy, Dickensian production, but the real problem with “NW” has less to do with ambition than with vision, energy and generosity of spirit.

Whereas “White Teeth” and Ms. Smith’s other masterwork, “On Beauty,” showcased her effortless ability to channel the point of view of parents and children, ideologues and dreamers, academics and blue-collar workers, her latest novel takes an oddly patronizing stance toward its characters. As a result the people in this book are more stereotypes than individuals, more ham-handed cartoons than emotionally detailed human beings. Its narrative feels at once perfunctory, jerry-built and weirdly contrived.

If E. M. Forster’s “Howards End” provided an armature of sorts for “On Beauty,” the ghost of Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” haunts “NW.” Not only does Ms. Smith employ a Woolf-like, stream-of-consciousness technique…

Read more: Michiko Kakutani, NY Times


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