Zadie Smith’s NW. Now What?

When you get there, where have you arrived? Is it a place you dreamed of? A castle you built? The façades, carefully constructed, to advertise your success. Do you like it there? Is it what you hoped? Have you brought your best with you? Or left it somewhere by the wayside, oxidising with your school photographs and treasured costume jewellery. How did you get here? Who did you step over? Were you careful where you put your feet? 
Tread gently. Leave breadcrumbs. But don’t doubt your good intentions.

You may remember I was quite excited to discover that Zadie Smith had written a new novel. I have always remembered her writing as bold, brazen and innovative and in this respect, NW does not disappoint.

This novel has a unique, lyrical quality that feels highly narrative in parts and conversational in others. Ms Smith provides context using scattered song lyrics, references to historical events and other popular culture. These are brilliant, effectively distilling paragraphs of description into a few well-chosen words. However, having worked too long as a proof-reader, I keep picturing the Word document covered in green squiggly lines, denoting the criticism dreaded by writers everywhere, ‘fragment’.

I do wonder if readability has been sacrificed in this colourful tumble of language. The style of NW makes for a challenging read, but if you are patient, and spend some time getting to know it, I’m sure you will appreciate the skill and strategy behind it. For example,

“The spinach is farm to table. Everyone comes together for a moment to complain about the evils of technology, what a disaster, especially for teenagers, yet most people have their phones laid next to their dinner plates. Pass the buttered carrots. Meanwhile parents have become old and ill at the very moment their children want to have their own babies…They ‘literally’ will not be happy until they’ve moved into our houses. Pass the heirloom tomato salad. The thing about Islam. Everyone is suddenly an expert on Islam…Pass the tuna. Solutions are passed across the table, strategies. Private wards. Private cinemas. Christmas abroad. A restaurant with only five tables in it. Security systems. Fences. The carriage of a 4×4 that lets you sit alone above traffic. There is a perfect isolation out there somewhere, you can get it, although it doesn’t come cheap.”

The narrative follows the development of a multicultural community in North West London and the maturation of four of its, perhaps representative, progeny. Ms Smith artfully develops her characters through dialogue*, complete with a variety of London dialects. The specifics of those dialects are lost on this reader, but they still effectively distinguish the socioeconomic and cultural status of each individual, highlighting and contrasting the trajectories of these connected but cacophonous lives. No details are spared in the violence, passion and cruelty of their encounters and the result is gritty, real and raw – like looking straight into the sun.

The narrative mode changes as the focus shifts from one character to another. In a sense, this a coming of age story written in retrospect, and with the acuity brought only by hindsight. Now thriving adults, the protagonists struggle with existential questions, raising questions of self-worth that you and I can empathise with. They have regrets, aspirations, disappointment and shame and are constantly plagued by ‘shoulds’, ‘what ifs’ and the perception of greener grasses. Their thoughts are so familiar, so unflattering and, occasionally, so feckless it hurts.

A ridiculous book once taught me, “nobody is looking at me, everybody is thinking about themselves.” And this is, perhaps unfortunately, the lasting impression I have of NW. Despite the roaring vibrance of this community, each of these characters is so tied up in their own ruminations that the sense of community between them is completely absent. We are left with something that is not so much story as it is a series of personal impressions and reflections. Whether this is intended as a searing reflection on modern life, I cannot tell. The prospect is not at all uplifting.

What I am trying to say is that this book is technically brilliant with entertaining social commentary, and rich characters but it is not quite the ‘story’ I had hoped for. The plot is so bare-threaded that I had to go back and find it after feeling confused by the denouement.

I don’t want to dissuade you from reading NW with my negative assessment, so I will leave you with this. In my favourite part of the novel, the entire life of Keisha (Natalie) Blake is summarised in a series of salient anecdotes. Each paragraph has a catchy title and is written from the age-appropriate point of view of the girl at the time. I have never read a more poignant illustration of nostalgia. I am aware that Ms Smith  worked extremely hard to write her story as a short book – as we all know, writing a longer one takes less time and skill – so I am full of admiration for this particular technique and had to showcase it for you.

Keisha Blake as a child:

“They sit on a bench in a shoe shop on the Kilburn High Road getting measured for a pair of dull brown shoes with a T-strap that did not express any of the joy that must surely exist in the world, despite everything.”

Keisha Blake as a teenager:

“She wanted to read things – could not resist wanting to read things – and reading was easily done, and relatively inexpensive. On the other hand, that she should receive any praise for such reflexive habits baffled the girl, for she knew herself to be fantastically stupid about many things. Wasn’t it possible that what others mistook for intelligence might in fact be only a sort of mutation of will?”

Natalie Blake as a successful lawyer, wife and mother – living far-removed from the spheres she grew up in:

“Natalie Blake had become a person unsuited to self-reflection. Left to her own mental devices she quickly spiralled into self-contempt. Work suited her, and where Frank longed for weekends, she could not hide her enthusiasm for Monday mornings. She could only justify herself to herself when she worked.”

Overall, I conclude that existing lovers of Zadie Smith will find plenty to love. Lovers of talented writing will find more. But this is not a story for the faint of heart.

  • What did you think of NW?
  • Have you another technically brilliant writer you would like to share?
  • Do you think there’s a limit to readers’ ability to accept ‘ugliness’ in writing?

* I have talked about this technique before in a post about Hemingway

7 responses to “Zadie Smith’s NW. Now What?

  1. Enjoyed reading this posting.

    I confess I love a well written story even when the tale itself doesn’t quite match the standards of the writing. That said, sometimes there is the impression that the author is more of a wordsmith than a storyteller and only needs the vaguest hint of a story to hang their verbal craft on.

    I have never read Zadie Smith, would you recommend NW or one of her other books as my initiation?

    • Glad you enjoyed it. Definitely start with White Teeth – it’s well over 10 years since I read it and I still remember being spellbound by it – I had never seen language ‘smithed’ like that before. In fact, it’s probably time I reread it myself!

    • How excellent. I hope you enjoy it! I think it will fit into your schedule nicely – important to have work/book balance and all that… 😉

  2. I’ve read at least three of Zadie Smith’s novels, and at least one book of her essays. All of the reviews I’ve read so far have been mixed. However, I was most excited to read your review— because you have the most insightful perceptions about books. Lovely. Well-written. So helpful!

  3. Pingback: An Observation, Briefly | Old, new or true·

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