NW opens with “Visitation,” a chronicle of life according to Leah, told through artfully written stream of consciousness and more traditional narration. As Leah meets up with and muses about her friend Natalie, I realized I knew these characters: their childhood friendship in council housing (“the projects,” as Americans refer to them), their drifting apart in high school, their reunion in college.
How? The book’s only been out since 2012, and even if I’d somehow forgotten reading it (!), I’d have a record right here. Perhaps the characters were carry-overs from a previous Smith novel? There are only a few. I’ve read On Beauty: loved it, but no Leah. White Teeth? I started it (and disliked it) but no Natalie.
I finally convinced myself this whole thing was only a weird echo from a different author.
However, by the time I reached the “Host” section of NW, I was certain I’d read it—or a version of it—before. It’s the history of the women’s friendship. Natalie’s name change (from Keisha) and her drive to succeed. Leah’s clueless choice of philosophy as a major (no math). Her mutable appearance.
My conclusion: perhaps I’d enjoyed an excerpt of NW in The New Yorker? I’ll just chalk it up as one of my more unusual reading experiences.
I can’t say I liked NW. I loved “Host,” with its 185 micro-chapters. And Smith has used lots of clever styles and memorable imagery to depict the urban landscape. (NW is a London zip code.) But it’s a bleak tale, and it’s a strangely un-engaging book, overall. Maybe it was just a little too cool—in all its meanings—for me.