By Zadie Smith
Penguin Group, $32, 304 pages
British hotshot Zadie Smith's frustrating new novel is about many things.
It's about poverty and racism and escape from those things. It's about luck and opportunity and their role in the escape. It's about two women's friendship and diverging lives -- their escape -- over the years.
Perhaps it's really about chaos, the chaos created by all those things.
Maybe that explains the novel's chaotic structure -- because it is anything but a straightforward tale. The story seems to be written if not backwards, at least inside out. It's only in the last half, titled Host, when Smith begins to write in one-paragraph chapters about the girls' childhoods, that the meaning of the first half comes clear.
It calls for a lot of flipping back to sort out who did what. This makes the storytelling choppy, a departure from Smith's usual smooth style.
It's the first half of the novel where the quality of her writing carries the day. The reader is so smitten by the beautiful flow in the first half, by Smith's ability to sketch her London with a few well-chosen images, that it's a good 100 pages in before it becomes irritatingly apparent there is no actual plot to that point.
Paragraphs, like this one describing a dinner party among upwardly mobile young Londoners, keep the reader's journey a pleasant one nonetheless:
"Pass the heirloom tomato salad. The thing about Islam. Let me tell you about Islam. The thing about the trouble with Islam. Everyone is suddenly an expert on Islam. But what do you think, Samhita, yeah, what do you think, Samhita, what's your take on this? Samhita, the copyright lawyer. Pass the tuna. Solutions are passed across the table, strategies. Private wards. Private cinemas. Christmas abroad. A restaurant with only five tables in it. Security systems. Fences. The carriage of a 4X4 that lets you sit above traffic. There is a perfect solution out there somewhere, you can get it, although it doesn't come cheap."
The title, NW, refers to the quadrant of London where the girls and other characters grow up in a housing estate, the product of Britain's famed social housing program.
The estate is showing decay, crumbling buildings, gangs, drugs, violence. It's a good bet it's modelled on the housing complex where Smith grew up.
Smith escaped from the chaos of her housing estate, as these girls do, through education. She hit it big with her first novel, White Teeth, in 2000, which she completed in her last year of university.
Two other novels, short stories and essays followed, but fans have waited seven years for this novel, her fourth.
The plot of White Teeth was so clever and the plot of NW so uneven, readers will wonder if NW is a Joycean experiment, the inverted plot, the shortage of paragraph indentations, Smith's neglect of quotation marks that would make it clear not only who is speaking, but when the quotation stops and becomes another character's thoughts.
But in classic Smith style, there is a moment when one girl's turning point is made crystal clear, just after her rich boyfriend saves the day and pays her university tuition.
"Low-status person with intellectual capacity but no surplus wealth seeks high-status person of substantial surplus wealth for enjoyment of mutual advantages, including longer life expectancy, better nutrition, fewer working hours and earlier retirement, among other benefits.
"Human animal in need of food and shelter seeks human animal of opposite gender to provide her with offspring and remain with her until the independent survival of aforementioned offspring is probable.
"Some genes, seeking their own survival, pursue whatever will most likely result in their replication."
Vintage Smith, and that will have to be enough to keep the fans happy.
Julie Carl is the deputy editor of the Winnipeg Free Press.