Heads Up: 'NW'

Smith and the city: Zadie returns to the lives of Londoners

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The Independent Culture

What are we talking about? The new novel by Zadie Smith, a "quietly devastating" tragi-comic story following four Londoners as they try to make their adult lives work in the city, beyond the council estate where they grew up together.

Elevator pitch Smith and the city: Zadie returns to her 'hood.

Prime mover Zadie Smith. Her fourth novel, NW has been eagerly awaited – it's seven years since her last, On Beauty (though she did have a child, become an NYU professor, and publish a collection of essays, Changing My Mind, in that time – not bad going really). The 36-year-old British author won the Somerset Maugham Award and the Orange Prize for On Beauty, while her debut White Teeth was nominated for every "first novel" award going (and won quite a few).

The early buzz The New Yorker, on publishing an extract, wrote that "the driving forces of this story are class, sex, and education". The website TheMillions.com observed that Smith "has variously called this a novel of class and a 'very, very small book'", before observing that such a description was, in fact, "highly unlikely". The Guardian has already hailed it "a triumph": "the complex topography of modern London is explored in a dazzling portrait of aspiration and apathy, change and continuity, the social and personal barriers between people… As Smith threads together her characters' inner and outer worlds, every sentence sings."

Insider knowledge Smith took inspiration from another great female novelist who hymned our capital: Virginia Woolf. At BookExpo America Smith said in an interview that Woolf "kept her going", as a "good example of a forward-thinking and yet consistently humane writer, and just a great female modernist. An old inspiration returned to me at the right moment."

It's great that… NW looks set to be a personal response to place: much of the novel is set in Kilburn, north-west London, where Smith herself grew up, and still lives today (when not in New York, that is).

It's a shame that… she's already been passed over for the Booker Prize, with NW not even making the long list, an omission which has baffled some commentators.

Hit potential Bankable. She's considered both a hip young writer and part of the literary establishment these days, and appetites are whetted after the lengthy wait. Plus, we're all a little bit in love with London this summer…

The details NW is published by Hamish Hamilton, on 6 September.