NW, Zadie Smith’s inventive and compassionate novel of aspiration, identity, and social hierarchy, takes its name from the part of London in which it is set—North West—a multiethnic, multiracial, mixed-income community where drug addicts wander the streets and wealthy entrepreneurs live among tradesmen.
Sometimes using unconventional techniques—she includes computer-generated walking directions and the text of headstones—Smith tells the story of three natives of the area: best friends Natalie and Leah, and Felix, who at first seems to have no connection to the others.
Each is determined to rise above a hardscrabble childhood. Felix, a former production assistant, links himself to a dissolute, aristocratic lover he meets on a film set. Natalie becomes a lawyer and marries a well-born banker. Leah attends a prestigious university in Scotland but returns home as an underpaid worker at a charity, suffering both guilt for being more successful than her parents and insecurity about not fitting in with an affluent crowd.
When Natalie invites her to dinner parties, Leah and her husband “have no gift for anecdote” and “look down at their plates and cut their food with great care” while the others chat and laugh. Meanwhile Natalie—so set on remaking herself, she’s discarded her given name, Keisha—lives a double life, engaging in sexual encounters with anonymous partners found on the Internet. Natalie’s world collides with Felix’s in a violent incident that forces her to peer “over into the pit that separates people who have known intolerable pain from people who haven’t.” There to comfort her is Leah, who understands the cost and complexity of her choices, as well as the gains.