Joyce Carol Oates reviews Zadie Smith’s NW in the New York Review of Books:
In its assiduously detailed evocation of the multicultural neighborhood of Willesden, in northwestern London, where in 1975 she was born and where she now lives for part of the year, Zadie Smith’s NW is a boldly Joycean appropriation, fortunately not so difficult of entry as its great model. In NW you will find what is called “stream-of-consciousness” prose (in which the reader is privy to the meandering thoughts of a white resident of Willesden, Leah Hanwell, who’d grown up there), snatches of overheard conversation (represented in reduced type), as well as prose-poems (“Sweet stink of the hookah, couscous, kebab, exhaust fumes of a bus deadlock…. Polish paper, Turkish paper, Arabic, Irish, French, Russian, Spanish, News of the World…. Here is the school where they stabbed the headmaster. Here is the Islamic Center of England opposite the Queen’s Arms”) and fragmentary, disjointed passages that read like notes for a novel, as well as the lengthy section “Host,” consisting of 185 numbered vignettes seemingly modeled after the “Aeolus” chapter of Ulysses, which is the novel’s heart, and involves its most engaging characters.
There are pleats in time, rearrangements of chronology, views of characters whom we’d believed we knew from sharply different perspectives. An aphorism shifts its tone from positive to sinister across hundreds of pages—the initial, seemingly visionary “I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me” becomes, in the cool summary of a young black girl’s “decline and fall,” the terse “I am the sole author”—that is, the sole author of one’s decline and fall.
The novel’s sketchily poetic opening, which seems to presage both hope and disaster, will be clarified, to a degree, near the end of the novel; the second chapter, taking us into the thoughts of Leah Hanwell, must be understood as preceding the opening chapter by several weeks, which isn’t evident at a first reading. Many of the novel’s passages don’t yield their meanings readily but contribute to its polyphonic density.