NW - Zadie Smith
I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us — don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

Zadie Smith's NW has been compared to lots of different works:Mrs. Dalloway, Ulysses, Telegraph Ave, even White Teeth, her debut novel. It seems to me that nothing comes closer to its essence than these few lines by Emily Dickinson. Set in NW London, also the setting for White Teeth, it is primarily about two life-long friends-the nobody's from the poem-as they try to figure out who they are, to themselves, to their families and to each other. Natalie, aka Keisha, is a barrister and mother. From a Jamaican family, she's worked hard for her many achievements but has lost something vital along the way. Leah, of Irish descent, is less focused than her friend and has achieved less. She may embody her ambivalence in a less-nuanced way, but she is no less troubled by her present life and the uncertainties about her future. Telling their stories allows Smith to ruminate about some troubling social trends in the city of London. The chasm between the haves and have-nots, the negative consequences of gentrification, immigrant alienation, substance abuse and racism are combined with some trenchant observations about zealous religiosity, sibling rivalry and mother-daughter antagonism: this bog-a neighborhood she calls NW-has it all.

Smith skewers many modern absurdities in a rambling, sometimes ungrammatical, prose style which might be off-putting to some readers, but seemed perfectly suitable to me for this tale of alienation and renewal. Although the section about Leah is divided into regular chapters, they are comprised of descriptions that blend with dialogue into a dreamy stream-of-consciousness with a hip-hop rhythm. Natalie's segment is divided into mostly short, numbered segments reminiscent of a self-help manual. It is an effective way to illustrate Natalie's rigor and self-control as Smith artfully peels away her carefully constructed facade to reveal a disturbing inner life. Two minor male characters provide a stark contrast to the comparative well-being of the women. One of them strives for renewal while the other one, a once-promising athlete, is defeated by his lack of discipline. Smith wants her characters-and her readers-to appreciate how neighborhoods can shape us in ways that can be positive, negative or both. She presents this particular neighborhood, with its complexities and contradictions, as a microcosm of the greater world and she does it with wit, style, and a clarity of vision. This may lack the manic exuberance ofWhite Teeth, but it is no less powerful in its impact.