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NW: A Novel Hardcover – September 4, 2012
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, September 2012: Zadie Smith's NW, an ode to the neighborhoods of northwest London where the author came of age, feels like a work in progress. For most writers, that would be a detriment. But in this case, the sense of imperfection feels like a privilege: a peek inside the fascinating brain of one of the most interesting writers of her generation. Smith (White Teeth, On Beauty) plays extensively with form and style--moving from screenplay-like dialogue to extremely short stories, from the first person to the third--but her characters don't matter as much as their setting. Smith is a master of literary cinematography. It's easy to picture her creations, flaws ablaze, as they walk the streets of London. --Alexandra Foster
*Starred Review* In her first novel since On Beauty (2005), Smith draws on her deepening social and psychological acuity and her intimacy with North West London to portray a quartet of struggling men and women linked by blood, place, affinity, and chance. Of Jamaican descent, Keisha, who renames herself Natalie, is smart, disciplined, ambitious, and duplicitous. Anglo Leah is unconventional, fearful, compassionate, and devious. They were close growing up together in public housing but are now leading somewhat divergent lives. Natalie is a corporate lawyer with a wealthy husband, two children, and a big, flashy house. Leah works for a not-for-profit organization and is married to a sweet French African hairdresser. As girls, they had crushes on schoolmate Nathan; now he’s mired in drugs, violence, and rage. Noble and ambitious biracial Felix crosses their paths just as his radiant integrity and kindness become liabilities. With exceptional discernment, wit, empathy, and artistry, Smith creates a breathtakingly intricate mesh of audible and interior voices while parsing family relationships, class and racial divides, marriage, and friendship. In this quintessential twenty-first-century urban novel depicting a vibrant, volatile multicultural world, Smith calibrates the gravitational forces of need and desire, brutality and succor, randomness and design, dissonance and harmony, and illuminates both heartbreaking and affirming truths about the paradoxes of human complexity. --Donna Seaman
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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.
BUT there is little real plot line. The characters are not appealing. Ultimately, the reader doesn't care about them, and wonders if Smith does. NW ( North-West London) is the major focus of the book. The speech sounds authentic. The lower class people we meet seem authentic. But we meet them in vignettes, and our interest wanes after a short while. When Smith switches to the story of Natalie Blake, which occupies the latter half of the book, her story is told from the outside. We know what happens to her, but we don't really know why.
I don't know why I finished the book, rather than tossing it aside.
The plot seems to act as the backdrop to the novel. It's not linear, clear, or perhaps even all that relevant. The characters, by contrast, are very well developed and the observations of society, class and race are astute. The writing style is unorthodox, which makes for an interesting read overall but feels lazy at points. Certain sections remind me of the shortcuts I would take on writing assignments in school, where I hoped that my lack of full paragraphs would translate as creativity. I dug around a little for the author's take on why she chose her style(s) and found this in a New Yorker blog:
"...there is the simple time restraint of having a kid. Four hours a day is as much as I had. I didn't have the time or inclination for sixty-page chapters. The idea of writing at any great length became absurd."
That's not very satisfying.
There were several other elements of the novel that I found unsatisfying at first, although the more I think about them the more they make sense. I was, for example, frustrated by Shar and Leah's plot line, wondering why it was included at all. After considering it for a few days, however, I've decided that without Shar we wouldn't fully understand Leah. Such is the case with many of the other seemingly tangential characters, and the sometimes vast amount of space devoted to each of their stories is not wasted.
This novel gets better for me the longer it sets in. I think it may end up being a favorite, but I would recommend that potential readers, especially fans of White Teeth and On Beauty, adjust their expectations before delving in.