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.