Smith introduces two other residents whose lives intersect with Leah’s and Natalie’s: Felix, newly sober and maybe ready at last to be the man he should be (a mechanic with a job, not flitting around the edges of the film industry); and Nathan, whose slide through the cracks of society Smith doesn’t explain, instead offering glimpses of his shadowy role around the neighborhood. But the men’s links to Leah and Natalie often feel so tenuous that one wonders how NW would have fared without them.
Natalie, though, is unforgettable. Her narrative, often told in brief, half-page chapters, is riveting. Leah’s piece of the puzzle, which opens the book, is less satisfying. To mimic her confusion, Smith plays around with form, using funky typography to indicate inner or imagined monologues and coy storytelling tricks that seem more suited to a less experienced author (or one deliberately seeking Joycean comparisons). One chapter ends with a wail trailing off the page (“NAOMI COME AWAY, FROM”). Streams of consciousness intrude sharply (a co-worker’s mouth transfixes Leah: “Tooth gold tooth tooth gap tooth tooth tooth TONGUE Tooth tooth tooth tooth chipped tooth filling”). This story, this place so rich in detail, has enough meat without the stylistic acrobatics.
Still, nothing can change the fact the Smith knows this bit of London in her bones, knows what it means to live there, knows what it means to get out. Yes, it’s an island we’re on here. A loud, crowded island. But like the novel itself, there’s beauty amid the cacophony.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor