ZS goes to some pretty experimental, Jonathan Safran Foer-esque places with her writing in NW, especially in the opening section, which initially put me off a bit. The book follows four characters - Leah, Keisha, Felix and Nathan - who are linked (some more closely than others) by their childhood in Caldwell, a subsidized housing project in NW London. It bears mentioning that much of this book is probably far more awesome if you're familiar with the city - Caldwell itself is fictional, but the other towns, neighborhoods, etc are the real thing. As in most of her other books, the characters are widely varied and often mixed in their race, upbringing and faith, and yet they all come together, largely due to their geography. After the first section (from Leah's POV) Smith sort of settles in to a still unusual but infinitely more readable writing style. Thank god.
It's a bit difficult to explain how these four characters interact without revealing some late plot points. I've yet to find a decent review that attempts to do so. I went into reading NW with no knowledge at all, and it made the experience very, very odd. It wasn't until the prose sort of realigned into a semblance of normality that I was able to hang on to what what happening. There was a lot of flipping back and forth through pages as my brain sluggishly put together the overlapping pieces of narrative, and I'm not sure whether a) I've gotten stupider, b) Smith meant it to happen that way, or c) she just missed the mark in terms of clarity. Obviously the shift in style was intentional, but was it necessary? When I came to the last page, I felt like I needed to re-read the whole book with the foundation of the character map that had finally come together in my brain. I respect Smith highly, and am tempted to just trust the fact that she is infinitely smarter than I, and this was a carefully constructed rollercoaster of discombobulation, but perhaps that's letting her off the hook.
So, let's just say NW is a ride. It's definitely stuck in my head. I recommend it highly - just be ready to focus, and try to stamp out your desire to know everything right away (and make it through that first segment - maybe it won't rub others the wrong way, but it damn near made me a quitter). The story sort of swirls and builds to a conclusion, one that isn't even near as artful as White Teeth, but is still maintains its own brand of conceptual, ambiguous genius. And for the love of everything holy, call me up so I have somebody to break this whole thing down with.
(left image copyright New York Magazine, right from Amazon)