‘NW’ by Zadie Smith

Nw

Fiction – hardcover; Penguin; 295 pages; 2012.

Sometimes when I’ve finished reading a book and I express an opinion about it, I find myself completely at odds with everyone else. Zadie Smith’s NW is a case in point.

This book — Smith’s fourth novel — is widely lauded and regarded as her finest work. Everyone I follow on Twitter seems to love it. But I struggled with it and found it a chore to read — in fact, I only forced myself to finish it because it had been chosen for my book group and I wanted to be able to take part in the discussion. If I had chosen the novel of my own accord I doubt I would have continued beyond the first chapter.

Fortunately, it’s the kind of novel that actually benefits from discussion, because after my book group meeting I found myself warming to it a bit more than I had first thought, but that doesn’t mean to say I liked NW; I didn’t.

North-west London setting

The story is set in the London postcode of NW, an impoverished part north of the river, and focuses on four characters — Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan — who grew up on the same council estate and are now trying to make their way as 30-something adults.

It mainly revolves around Leah and Keisha, who were once best friends but now live lives that couldn’t be more different. Leah, a white Irish girl, has married an exotic-looking black French/Algerian — the kind of man all her black colleagues lust after — and is feeling the pressure of beginning a family she doesn’t yet want, probably because she  rails against the idea of bringing up a child in the same circumstances in which she was raised; while Keisha, who has reinvented herself as Natalie, is a successful black barrister with two children but finds married life so dull she has kinky sex with other couples she tracks down on the internet.

Meanwhile, Nathan, the good-looking boy Leah had a crush on at school, is living on the streets and illegally reselling tube tickets to scrape together a bit of money to feed his crack habit. Felix, the fourth character, is a bit of a red herring — he’s not known to Leah or Keisha — but his world closely orbits their’s and, eventually, collides with Nathan’s.

An experimental novel

In most of the reviews I’ve looked at online, NW has been billed as “experimental”. I guess that’s a fair way of describing the structure, which is divided into four parts. The prose style is stylistically different in each of those four parts. I found the first section “Visitation”, which is Leah’s story, so choppy and disjointed — deliberately mirroring the character’s own thought patterns — that it felt impossible to get a handle on.

Felix’s story, told in the second part, “guest”, was much easier to read, but I wasn’t sure how it was linked to the rest of the narrative, because it’s mainly set in W1. (Though Smith does tie it back right at the end, by which time it’s easy to have forgotten who Felix was.)

The most successful part, entitled “Host”, tells Keisha’s story and her changing friendship with Leah: it was easy-to-read, engaging, witty in places, sad in others, but filled with an energy and restlessness that seemed to match the personality of the character, keen to escape her black Pentecostal roots and climb the social and career ladder.

Disjointed and meandering

So why didn’t I like this book? It’s hard to pinpoint. It has some obvious strengths: the characterisation is superb and Smith expertly captures the sounds and smells and sights of this part of London (although there’s a tendency to overdo it in places). But I thought the narrative was disjointed and meandering, and each new section felt like it had been written as part of a creative writing exercise. It doesn’t seem to gel together as one cohesive whole — though perhaps that’s the point? — and it often got too bogged down in unnecessary detail.

The view of the world — or, at least, of Willesden — it presents is also unrelentingly bleak. This is a London filled with people who are cruel, mean-spirited, manipulative, violent, suspicious and unkind, where your birthplace dictates the life you must lead, with little chance to better yourself or your circumstances. As Philip Hensher points out in this review in The Telegraph, “it is angry about injustice, and overwhelmingly interested in the lost talent, the resources lost in an abandoned generation”. This adds up to a pretty damning portrait of London (and British) life, but if that was Smith’s message, then she’s undoubtedly succeeded…

So while there’s a lot to unpick in this novel — politically, socially, morally and “novelistically” —  it wasn’t really for me. You may beg to differ.

To see what other bloggers thought of it, please see the (mixed) reviews at ANZLitLovers, KevinfromCanada,  Asylum and Annabel’s House of Books.

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22 thoughts on “‘NW’ by Zadie Smith

  1. I remember enjoying it with reservations, and I agree the Keisha/Natalie section was the most successful. I have just returned to my blog post – and found this quote from part 1 which tickled me though; “He smiles shyly at Leah. Aged ten he had a smile! Nathan Bogle: the very definition of desire for girls who had previously only felt that way about certain fragrant erasers.”

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    • LOL. That’s such a funny quote and I actually remember laughing at that line when I came across it. I’m older than Zadie Smith, but I do remember collecting fragrant erasers was THE thing to do when I was about 13! Goodness knows what ever happened to my collection.

      PS > I’ve added a link to your review above.

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  2. I loved this, but I listened to the audio book and the narrators did such a fantasic job with the accents and pacing. I had a paper copy to which I would dip into but quickly return to the audio as it was richer for me. Great review though, I shall check out the others.

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    • Well don’t say that on Twitter, Susan 😉 Funnily enough, everyone in our book group, apart from one person, didn’t much like this book either, so it seems to be a bit of a Marmite book — you either love or hate it.

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  3. I didn’t *love* this one, but I didn’t hate it, either. There were parts of it that I really liked. But I find it hard to believe that it’s Smith’s greatest work. I’ll be starting White Teeth today, and I’m anxious to compare NW to her other books.

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    • I read White Teeth when it first came out, long before I started this blog, and I remember liking it a lot — I had only just moved to London at the time, so I expect it resonated, but I couldn’t tell you a thing about the storyline — it certainly didn’t stay with me.

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  4. To be honest I don’t remember the details all that well now, but I do remember my general reaction to the book, which was that it felt almost like a first novel (which would tie in with your comment about it lacking cohesion). But I don’t mean that in a bad way; rather that my impression was that over the course of three novels (and I’ve read and enjoyed all of them to varying degrees) Smith had perfected one particular kind of novel and instead of keeping on down that same route, with ‘NW’ she was to some extent reinventing herself, which artistically I admire a great deal, and I was left thinking “her next book is going to be really interesting” (albeit her next book turned out to be “The Embassy of Cambodia” which was hugely underwhelming!). Which sort of sums up my opinion of Zadie Smith’s writing: I’m sure she’s got a great book in her and one day she’ll write it, but neither ‘NW’ nor the much-lauded ‘White Teeth’ is it.

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    • Funnily enough, that was the consensus at our book group: that she’s an interesting writer, got a great book in her somewhere and one day she’ll write a masterpiece, but this isn’t it.

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    • Yes, I think that’s fair criticism — it felt a bit like she was trying too hard. I saw a review by Anne Enright which stated that Smith’s previous novels were all very precisely plotted, but this one seemed deliberately different.

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  5. Thanks for linking to mine, Kim. For me, she’s a 3-star kind of a writer – though I’ve only read On Beauty beside this one so perhaps I should withhold judgement till I’ve read White Teeth – it’s been on my TBR since forever but reading two so-so books has never inspired me to pick it up and read it.

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    • I remember liking White Teeth when I read it 15 years ago but I couldn’t really tell you what it was about except it’s another London novel. I think the thing about her debut is that it was written when she was so young (I think she was early 20s) which is perhaps why she has been so lauded.

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      • That makes it hard, I think. I mean, if there’s a big fuss over your first novel when you’re in your 20s, everyone expects each successive novel to be even better. And it should be, in a way, because only living a life can give a novelist themes to draw on and characters to create. A lifetime of observing people and discovering how complex life is, is what gives our best authors the material to write great novels. But if that development is hampered by the dead weight of a 20-something success, and publishers pressuring you to repeat it with something equally marketable, it must be very difficult IMO.

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  6. I was reading the plot description and I was like “this sounds awesome, I would totally read this!” Then I got to the part about the structure being “experimental” and that’s when I tapped out. I don’t like my books to be experimental in any way. Have you read White Teeth? Is that better? It’s on my TBR challenge list for this year so I will have to get through it at some point. Hopefully there’s nothing experimental about that one!

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  7. I tend to like experimental novels, but this one just didn’t work for me.

    And yes, I’ve read White Teeth — it was so long ago I don’t remember much about it, but does follow a traditional format; it was her first novel after all.

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  8. I liked it but I can certainly see why others wouldn’t. It was a few years ago now so I can’t remember my reasons too well, but I know I liked that it was almost a series of vignettes and I did like the experimental nature of it (I find experimental hit or miss). As it neared the end I found it less interesting, it seemed to lose itself a bit. This said it’s the only novel of Smith’s that I’ve read and I’ve always just assumed I’d probably like her other books more.

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    • Thanks for your comment, Charlie. I think you’re spot on about it being a series of vignettes. I liked these but I don’t think it held together as a cohesive novel, but of course that’s just my opinion.

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  9. Pingback: NW by Zadie Smith | chasing bawa

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