The primary characters in Zadie Smith's new novel -- residents of North West London, from which the title derives -- are dissected and analyzed, or more often skewered, as Smith lays bare their hypocrisies, ambitions, facades, insecurities, prejudices, and fears. The four central characters stand on different rungs of the social ladder. The impact of class and social identity on relationships is the novel's central theme, why some people rise above their beginnings and others don't is the central question, but -- setting aside those social issues -- I enjoyed NW for the portrait it paints of troubled individuals coming to terms with their changing lives.
Leah Hanwell, 35, is married to an African named Michel. Leah has a love/hate relationship with Michel, and also with her friend Natalie (formerly Keisha), a barrister whose upward mobility (assisted by marriage to a prosperous money manager) has eluded her childhood friends. Just as J-Lo tried some years ago to convince her audience that she was still "Jenny from the block," Natalie is experiencing something of an identity crisis. Having shed the name Keisha, she still clings to her past, at least to Leah, whose attendance at Natalie's posh parties seems designed to contrast Natalie's humble beginnings to her current status. Although Leah has done well for herself, earning a degree and finding employment with a nonprofit, she remains tongue-tied in the company of educated professionals (Natalie invites Leah to tell stories and then gladly tells them for her) and is embarrassed by Michel's sincerity (but only when they are in public). Leah also seems envious of and disquieted by Natalie's children.
A couple of lesser characters haven't made the same progress as Natalie and Leah. Nathan Bogle, the recipient of Leah's childhood crush, is mired in a slang-filled, weed-smoking life, a life on the streets that is dedicated solely to survival. His role in the novel is to teach Natalie that she knows nothing about his social class despite attending the same school when they were both ten. Nathan knows Natalie has "made it" because she can squander her tears on something as insignificant as a distressed marriage; she has left more fundamental worries behind. Yet for all her success and despite Nathan's complaint that she is needlessly self-pitying, Natalie feels trapped by her circumstances. Her desperate sadness motivates foolish behavior.
Positioned somewhere between Nathan and Leah on the ladder of success is Felix Cooper, whose Jamaican father lives in the West End. Felix craves the freedom of a better life in the North West with Grace (half Jamaican, half Nigerian), who wants to free him of his "negative energy." While interesting and well written, Felix's story seems out of place, having only a tangential connection to the rest of the novel.
Readers who cannot abide unconventional writing might dislike NW. Each of the novel's sections is written in a different style. Dialog is often (but not always) set apart in condensed paragraphs; in the first section, quotation marks are nonexistent. Sentences, like the thoughts they reflect, are sometimes incomplete or scattered. One passage is written as free-form poetry; another as an online chat. The largest chunk of the novel is written as a series of vignettes, scenes that deftly sketch out Leah's and Natalie's lives from their childhood to the present. One section follows Natalie as she takes a long walk through the North West; it is divided into subsections ("Hampstead to Archway") like a guide to a walking tour. I enjoyed the different styles -- they aren't particularly daring and they don't make the novel inaccessible -- but readers who favor a straightforward narrative might be put off by the jarring changes in format.
As we have come to expect from Zadie Smith, much of the story is wryly amusing, if not laugh-out-loud funny. Her description of "marriage as the art of invidious comparison" is one of many sly observations I admired. Smith's prose is as graceful and unpredictable as a tumbleweed. The pace is relaxed, not slow but unhurried. In a good way, the story is slightly meandering. Smith takes her time, developing the characters and their surroundings bit by bit until it all becomes real.
I suspect that readers who dislike Jonathan Franzen's most recent novels will dislike NW for the same reasons: there isn't much of a plot and the characters aren't always likable (although Smith's characters aren't as determinedly self-centered as Franzen's). Both writers strive to say something about society at large by focusing on smaller segments, families and friends who are defined by geography and class. Readers who believe that good writing often illuminates the world as it exists, not as we want it to be, that it is just as important to understand flaws as perfection, will find much to admire in Smith's surgical exploration of characters struggling to come to grips with their changing lives. To my mind, NW is a fine, fun, five star novel.
on September 24, 2012
I'm a big Zadie Smith fan. I loved both White Teeth and On Beauty (although I hated The Autograph Man). I spent the first 30 pages of NW thinking, "What is this?" - I couldn't even figure out what was going on. But then I started to get it and think it was such a brilliant book. Now I've finished it and I'm back to wondering, "What was this?"
I had a few big problems. One is that Natalie, after a certain point, seemed more like a type than a human being. I never believed she would lose control so completely, or that she would let herself sink so low. (Or that someone so tightly controlled and conscious of appearances would do drugs so readily - as she apparently did throughout her life. Maybe that's just a prudish American reaction to drugs, or maybe I just live in a bubble.) Two: something in Natalie's narrative made me not really like either her or Leah (although I really enjoyed reading Leah's section at the time). In fact, I felt like the characters were mostly being skewered (as another reviewer said) by the author, which didn't make reading this book any more pleasant. Three: am I missing something in the ending? I couldn't believe that was it - it felt like I was in mid-page. And four: what did this all really amount to in the end? What did it all mean?
I'd be curious to hear from other people, particularly what they thought the ending meant in the literal sense, but also what point they thought Zadie Smith was ultimately trying to make.
on October 2, 2012
Zadie Smith's fourth novel, NW, is her most ambitious in terms of structure and style. She's passionate, poetic, a bit cheeky, and, yes, at times challenging, too. But don't let that scare you off. This novel about the people who inhabit a London neighborhood, told in five sections, might be her best book yet.
The now mid-30s Londoners who all grew up in the same neighborhood, but whose paths have diverged, all have secrets, all have seen successes and failures (some more than others), and all have a complicated relationship with their roots. Essentially, the novel asks us to consider how different factors (race?) and different formative events turn us into the people we eventually become.
The main focus is on Leah Hanwell and Natalie (Keisha) Blake, lifelong friends. Each woman gets her own section of the novel. We start with Leah, whose story is told in short mini-chapters. Leah is in a failing relationship, based largely on physical attraction, with a "beautiful" man named Michel. And she's trying to figure out what it means to be happy -- is the definition of contentment her friend Natalie's marriage to a nice, successful man named Frank, and their two children? Or is it Leah's own avowed-childless state?
The next section, the most straightforward in the novel, tells the story of guy named Felix -- a recovering drug addict who is trying to put his life back together. But is the pull of the past too strong? We only find out at the end of the novel how Felix's story relates to the stories of the other three characters. And it's more than a little bit of a gut-punch.
My favorite part of the novel is Natalie's section, the third. It's the longest in the novel, and it's told in 185 line- to paragraph- to page-length snippets, each with its own title (the title, which, is often key to understanding what Smith is talking about). What makes these so successful is that Smith trusts you as an observant reader, often dropping you in mid-scene or mid-conversation. It's like she assumes you will know what she's talking about -- whether a popular movie or Kurt Cobain or a reference to a previous part of the novel itself -- and therefore the effect is that you actually feel engaged in Natalie's story. Besides that, Natalie's story -- growing up, going to law school, marrying Frank, harboring a secret -- is really engrossing.
The final two (very short) sections tie a bow on the novel, as we see Leah's problems with her boyfriend come to a head, and Natalie, despite her own problems, has to come help her. We also see Natalie taking a quasi-tour of the neighborhood with the fourth principle of the novel, a fella named Nathan, who had been the object of a schoolgirl crush by Leah. But now, drug-addicted and possibly homeless (we actually first see Nathan briefly in the first section, when Leah runs into him at a train station), Nathan stands as cautionary tale and is the balance or contrast to the relatively successful Leah and Natalie.
Overall, this is a great novel. I loved it! My only complaint about the novel is that, even though it's 400 pages, it actually feels a bit slight. Indeed, it's probably, on a word-count basis, the shortest 400-page novel you'll ever read. That's because the line-by-line spacing is rather loose and the Natalie section often breaks several times on the page.
I would've gladly kept reading more about these fascinating characters. There are several unanswered questions at the end. But still, the process of getting there is a really rewarding reading experience. I devoured this novel in about four days. It's worth nothing that, often, you have to go back and re-read some of the simple clues Smith drops in earlier sections to understand a reference in a latter. But that's not hard, and it gives you those awesome "I'm-in-on-the-inside-joke. I get it!" moments when you understand. (Example: Why does Natalie change her name from Keisha?)
Zadie Smith is one of my all-time favorite writers, and this novel -- seven long years after her last -- does nothing to diminish that. Four stars. Highly recommended for the literary fiction fiend.
on September 6, 2012
NW is both a quadrant of London and a state of mind in Zadie Smith's ambitious novel. It is composed of a dense cluster of communities where a diverse group of people struggle to get and keep a toehold in London. The two main characters in the book are Leah and Natalie, friends since childhood in Caldwell, a NW enclave. Both are determined to be people different from their parents and the typical NW stereotype.
The first section of the book is presented from the the perspective of Leah, who is disquieted that her life lacks the focus or seriousness of Natalie's life, yet is embarrassed that her husband so much wants to emulate that life. Natalie is a barrister with two children and a husband, Frank, who is an attractive, sophisticated currency trader. Leah works for a nonprofit and her husband, Michel, is a hairdresser determined to better himself financially and socially. Leah and Michel are invited to all of Natalie's parties, but the friendship has become brittle, and the reader is uncertain whether any two people in this foursome still like each other. There is considerable tension all around, but we have no back-story or insight to dissect the clues we are given. The remainder of the book provides the context, but there is no easy solution to the disquiet in the lives of these two women. The book provides the reader with story arcs and details about their lives, but has the honesty and confidence to leave us not with a tidy solution but instead with all the jagged edges of real life.
For all the diversity of the characters described in the book, characters fall into two main categories: those who can afford to be sloppy, like Leah and Frank, and those who can't, like Natalie and Michel. Those in the first category grow up in a cocoon of relative privilege, believing that everything will be okay in life. They can afford to be more generous, exploratory and relaxed. Those in the other group, which besides Natalie and Michel includes almost everyone in NW London, are one small step from disaster at all times. Many take that wrong step and end in jail, pregnant, dead. The small group that doesn't meet this end is constantly expecting that it will happen to them. This makes them cautious, selfish, afraid. And even when these characters do absolutely everything to protect themselves, disaster often finds them anyway.
The signs of friction in the first section are amplified, if not fully explained, in the remainder of the book, which primarily focuses on Natalie. Born Keisha, she sheds that name along with her NW personality, remaking herself from scratch by sheer determination. The main problem is not unexpected. A personality created by determination is understandably brittle, and Natalie never feels she can relax. A personality created by willpower can continue only so long as that willpower continues to sustain it. This concept, repeated with other characters, is generally persuasive, and in this very well written book none of those born in NW ever really escape its pull. At the end of the book Natalie places a call to the police, disguising her voice as Keisha. But is Keisha the disguise, or Natalie?
Some of the characters in the book, including Frank and Annie merely serve as stereotypes of people born to privilege. They serve no purpose except as juxtapositions to the complex ambivalence felt by their lovers, Natalie and Felix. These characters are drawn too simplistically to really work. And there are odd tangents in the book, particularly the section on Felix, that are more distracting than illuminating. But overall these are minor quibbles. This is a well written and haunting book about two women struggling to be happy, content, fulfilled. They have created "successful" lives as envisioned back in NW as kids, but it turns out life isn't that simple.
on October 14, 2012
NW took Zadie Smith longer than usual and is, to quote her from the Telegraph, her "favourite by a long, long way." Not mine, but then it may be a matter of time for me, too.
The novel is so well distilled that the true taste of it unfolds in due course, after you're well into the story. What story, I wondered at first, this looks and sounds more like a purposefully-accidental, self-conscious collection of anecdotes, statements and snippets. Normally I'd slap the "lazy" label on such structure, but this is work. However choppy, a plot emerges and pulls in and out, akin to the interconnected movie lifelines in highly stylized chaos-classic Pulp Fiction, Amores Perros or Babel (not everyone's cuppa, granted). However sketchy, Smith's short strokes are a stunningly effective technique in drawing characters. Whatever haze or confusion there may be around either of them, her wit and smarts laser through to the core, leaving us with an "aha" effect or with recognition, uncomfortably so, for the lives these people lead are, while vastly different, not so great. There are problems with class, race, sexuality, addiction, identity and relationships all over the map, mostly contained in Smith's now part-time London neighborhood. Thematically, she might have been vulnerable to another reproach, namely that she pandered to national preoccupations (class- British; race- ditto, American, too; the rest, universal), if the problems weren't rendered so elegantly, so free of sentimentality, that, at the absolute least, she makes you THINK. It makes full sense, then, that a series of mini-chapters is delivered in a mock-scientific-paper tone, and is tragi-hilarious for it. Who can create an association between science and humor? Zadie Smith.
Her "ode" to home won't be mistaken as commissioned by a tourist agency, yet it is full of love, lyrics and longing.
on October 30, 2012
In the '70s, when a band had one more record on their contract, they'd crank out a live album. The latest novel from Zadie Smith seems to have a bit of that contractual obligation feel to it. Smith doesn't really have much to say, so she has decided to experiment with her technique. How does she do? Let's just say David Mitchell has nothing to worry about.
The novel revolves around three characters who reside(d) in N.W. in London. Leah and Natalie are best friends. Felix is an incidental character who get a small portion of the novel. Leah's story begins the proceedings, with Smith going for something of a stream of consciousness effect. Unfortunately, she does so in a manner that suggests that Leah has a mental disorder, as she often is not able to string together thoughts in a linear manner. The result is a difficult and unrewarding read (compare to James Kellman's How Late It Was, How Late, where the rambling internal thoughts weren't quite so tangled and coherently incoherent). Felix's story is told in a more straightforward manner, but is simply uninteresting. Natalie's story is done as a long, numbered series of vignettes. To an extent, she is the only developed character in the novel. However, Smith undermines this by introducing a plot twist that, while weakly foreshadowed, manages to come across as weak, contrive shock value that seems more a way to end the novel than to provide any insight.
And that takes this back to the main problem. No amount of style in the world can mask the fact that this book lacks any central premise, as none of the characters are worth caring about, and the book doesn't really seem to have any purpose, other than taking up a predetermined number of pages. Parts of the book are alright, but Smith can do much better than this, and has before.
on September 16, 2012
'NW', by Zadie Smith, was a challenging, disjointed read, especially in the first part of the book, and it's written in a way some readers wouldn't be accustomed to, or would like.
Sections of the book are in different styles; one like poetry, another like online chat and quotation marks are non-existent throughout the dialog in the first section.
The story also lacks substantive plot; rather it delves more into the characters; their insecurities, prejudices, fears and ambitions. There is no doubt the characters and language are authentic given the author was born in north-west London, where the book is set.
There were times when I felt like abandoning this book, but changed my mind, determined to finish it. After all, every reader should experience different authors and their respective styles to appreciate writing as an art and to challenge your imagination.
Zadie Smith is a unique and critically praised author, with a wry sense of humor evident throughout 'NW', but with a writing style that will not necessarily be to everyone's taste.
I too like Zadie Smith, in fact I notice that the book's cover is dominated by her name. I don't mind the different writing styles or the train of consciousness. I don't like that the characters hide such large parts of themselves. While writing that engages the reader to consider that which is not explicit is attractive to me, this book does not include enough clues. I Also think that the hype for this book, in part, sets it up to disappoint more with its shortcomings than what ordinarily would be the case. Worth a look if you are a reader, but it didn't give me enough to fully engage.
on May 25, 2014
This is a book with literary ambitions, with a narrative technique which is an element of the story. The language is at times choppy, at times lyrical, depending on the viewpoint. There are points where the narrative is hard to follow, but the effort necessary is well rewarded. I found myself thoroughly engaged with the characters and their stories. Looking for a broad theme in the book, I think it it would be that in disadvantaged communities like NW London there are bright spots and very dark spots, and even those who outwardly escape remain marked by their experiences.
After a few weeks, I decided to re-read the book and found it even more interesting the second time through. Seemingly insignificant details at the beginning of the book revealed themselves when read again with knowledge of how the story develops. I found that another enriching experience is to read the book with Google maps handy. Typing in streets or locations mentioned in the book brings up the real places where these imagined scenes take place. Towards the end of the book Natalie and Nathan walk across the city and it is fascinating to trace their route and see some of the landmarks mentioned, such as the flower shop next to Kilburn station (flanked by an Italian Restaurant, not Chinese take-out) and the bridge where Natalie looks out over South London.
Again, a rewarding read.
on September 10, 2012
Considering all the positive reviews I was astonished by how little I liked this novel, and as it wound toward its conclusion, grew almost to despise it. A Smith novel, after White Teeth, is and should be a literary event. But this novel reads more like a Masters fiction thesis than anything by the writer of White Teeth. Its varied 4-part narrative structure, exploration of themes, and character development all work in tandem to disassemble its ambition.
Its experimental narrative structure and style explores 4 major character, two women and two men. Each section is stylistically distinct - but the two narratives that make up the bulk of the book (Leah and Natalie consume roughly 70% of the novel) are fractured in a way which makes it harder to connect and understand the characters and their motivations for making decisions. Leah's narrative is formed with staccato sentences ("Water shortage. Food wars. Strain A-H5N1. Manhattan slips into the sea. England freezes."), while Natalie's life story is wrought through mostly brief paragraphs/sections. It makes for some difficult, unrewarding reading.
The creative and experimental narrative in and of itself is not the cause of unrewarding nature of the book. In addition, it cynically and superficially explores its themes. Leah's section is predictably contemptible of Natalie's money and class, while her motivations for not wanting children remain an illusive mystery. Natalie is predictably bored with her upper-middle class marriage but goes to such incredible extremes and perils to escape it that it becomes incredibly out of character, and Smith does barely any justice to explaining it. How are we to understand and know and enjoy spending time with these characters when they are crafted in such a fractured, superficial, unsympathetic way?
The males of the novel feel more like an afterthought, written more for balance than anything else. Their narrative (each have the same issues as Leah's and Natalie's) problems are only exacerbated due to their brevity.
Ultimately the book doesn't read like Smith has any sympathy or caring for her characters - they feel more like vessels for her to observe and snipe through ("they thought life was a problem that could be solved by means of professionalism"). With so many great authors releasing books this fall, save your precious reading time for another.