Where the Mild Things Are
In Zadie Smith’s latest, two London women try to resist the confines of marriage and motherhood
by Zadie Smith
Penguin Press HC, The
$26.95 List Price
Pity; they used to be such nice girls. Leah Hanwell and Keisha Blake grew up together in a grim housing estate in North West London. They acquired university degrees, good jobs, political convictions, pretty husbands. And they’re miserable. Now in their mid-thirties, they’re pickling in bile and coming apart. Leah has become fixated on a local woman who bilked her out of thirty pounds. She’s secretly taking birth-control pills, scuttling her husband’s plans to start a family. Keisha, who’s gotten posh and changed her name to Natalie, is spending a bit too much time on a website catering to people with specialized sexual interests (specifically, black females aged eighteen to thirty-five). They’re not so nice anymore. They’ve become the kind of women who are “on a war footing, constantly, even at brunch.” They hate their friends. They hate their mothers. They believe “happiness is not an absolute value. It is a state of comparison.” They believe that friendships between women are rooted in “ruthless comparison” and that “marriage [is] the art of invidious comparison.” They sing songs in the key of contempt.
Zadie Smith’s new novel, NW, is at once a subtle investigation into the intersections of race and class, and a kind of detective story—what’s eating these two? What’s turned those plucky pals into women so slack they can’t even revolt properly? They’re girls gone mild, quietly rattling their cages, contemplating insurrection and going online instead. They can’t even find harbor in each other. It’s Smith’s bleakest book yet, telluric and about as nihilistic as this sunny
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