Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 20, 2013

NW by Zadie Smith

NW by Zadie SmithIs it possible to be fascinated by a book and yet really not like it very much?

NW is blurbed as the story of a city, a chaotic, rough and defeated part of the city of London.   The title refers to what we in Australia call a postcode, though ours have just digits, whereas in London, the postcode begins with a geographic locator, in this case, NW for North West.   It seems that, for Zadie Smith, a postcode means destiny…

The novel is structured in four parts, telling the story of characters wishing to escape their destiny.  Their city is squalid and malevolent.  It’s a place where poor people prey on each other.  Kindness is gullibility.  Characters loudly demand respect as well as exemption from the behaviours that make communal living congenial.  This London is nasty.

When a pregnant woman boards the tube, Felix asks a fellow-passenger to take his feet off the seat so that she can sit down.  An unpleasant confrontation ensues, so it’s Felix who gives up his seat.  But the incident doesn’t end with the foul-mouthed aggression, it gets worse, and this kind of incident is portrayed as an everyday London occurrence.

Another small incident is also instructive:

126.  Apple Blossom, 1 March

Surprised by beauty, in the front garden of a house on Hopefield Avenue.  Had it been there yesterday?  Upon closer inspection the cloud of white separated into thousands of tiny flowers with yellow centres and green bits and pink flecks.  A city animal, she did not have the proper name for anything natural.  She reached up to break off a blossom-heavy twig – intending a simple, carefree gesture – but the twig was sinewy and green inside and not brittle enough to snap.  Once she’d begun, she felt she couldn’t give up (the street was not empty, she was being observed) she laid her briefcase on somebody’s front garden wall, applied both hands and wrestled with it.  What came away finally was less twig than branch, being connected to several other twigs, themselves heavy with blossom, and the vandal Natalie Blake hurried away and round the corner with it.   She was on her way to the tube.  What could she do with a branch?  (p. 222).

This London is a place where a local-made-good who is well able to afford to buy a spring nosegay, thinks of breaking off other people’s plants as a ‘simple, carefree gesture‘ and feels more embarrassed about ceasing to steal than continuing.

Leah, Felix, Keisha (who reinvents herself as Natalie) and Nathan represent people struggling against this tide.  Their London is a place of ‘estate’ housing and schools which struggle to offer hope.  For the academically successful or socially ambitious there are barriers all around – not just from the social class they aspire to, but also from their peers who sabotage any efforts to get ahead. Cheryl, Leah’s sister, isn’t jealous of Leah’s comparative success, she despises it.

The novel is written in fractured scraps, and mostly in sharp dialogues which represent the multicultural milieu that makes up London these days.  The Irish community has moved on from NW Kilburn, displaced by immigrants from the Caribbean, Algeria, the Indian sub-continent and Russia, but the struggle seems to be not so much a matter of cross-cultural identity but between making something of yourself, and knowing your place.

People seem to be irrevocably classified.  When a baby is born…

People came with advice.  Caldwell people felt everything would be fine as long as you didn’t actually throw the child down the stairs.  Non-Caldwell people felt nothing would be fine unless everything was done perfectly and even then there was no guarantee. (p. 238)

The only thing that seems coherent in the novel is the way characters are tattooed with their social origins.  Everything else is fractured: names, relationships, events, thoughts, pop culture and technological developments over time, all these seem to spit out at the reader, sometimes looping back to make connections and other times not.   It’s also a novel of thirty-somethings; there are very few older characters other than Leah and Keisha’s mother and the children have less personality (or plot impact) than the dog Olive.   The narrative is meant to be like this; it’s a novel exploring elements of modern life written in a postmodern form.

I am not entirely convinced that it’s successful.  It’s not the form or even the rather alienating subject matter: Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor explored the underbelly of London in a somewhat similar fractured narrative, and I thought that was very well done.  It’s that there are aspects of NW that seem to me to be misplaced.  Leah’s reluctance to have children seemed like an afterthought placed in the novel to make it relevant to thirty-somethings; there was no explanation for it (unless I missed it) and nothing to clarify the flaw in their relationship that made it so hard for her to discuss it with her rather nice husband.  Nor did there seem to be any catalyst for Keisha/Natalie’s dalliance, and it was unconvincing in its execution.  More importantly, there isn’t any real reason why Leah should have been so bothered by the intrusion of Shar and her scam for extracting money; the indignation seemed to me to be out of proportion given a milieu in which this sort of thing apparently happens so often that Leah’s generosity can immediately be labelled gullible.  She should have known better, so why invest the incident with mythic significance?

K.Thomas Khan reviewed NW for The Millions and reading this review only confirmed for me, that cities are not all the same.  Though I suppose the inhabitants of Caldwell would simply dismiss this opinion by scornfully labelling me privileged.

Adam Mars-Jones in the Guardian had some doubts about NW but Rachel Cooke in The Observer found that the wonderful bits outweighed its flaws.

Author: Zadie Smith
Title: NW
Publisher: Penguin, 2012
ISBN: 9780241145555
Source: Review copy courtesy of Penguin Australia

Availability

Fishpond: NW


Responses

  1. I’m reading this at the moment (about one-third of the way in) and this review echos my thinking. I absolutely loved White Teeth but since then I have been slowly falling out of love with her writing (although resisting it because White Teeth made such an impression at the time). I am utterly unconvinced by Leah’s reaction to the incident involving Shar, and the whole book just feels too fractured and erratic. I know that’s the point really, but it doesn’t quite hang together. I’m persisting, though. Perhaps I will have a different perspective once I’ve finished it.

    • Hello Irma, and welcome:)
      I’ll be very interested to see what you think when you get to the end of it … do come back and share your thoughts, please!

      • I’ve been meaning to come back because having finished NW my view has altered somewhat. I don’t think the book is entirely successful but about halfway through I found myself absorbed by it. For me, London itself is the strongest and most vivid character in the book, and all the ‘real’ characters seem to be in service of illuminating this larger ‘character’. The dialogue is so alive, so precisely of that area, that I reconnected with the feeling of a place I haven’t lived in for a very, very long time. I could hear the inflections, the undercurrents of speech. But this also surely makes it the most alienating of her books. If you’re not familiar with the patter of that kind of speech, if you can’t ‘hear’ it as it’s spoken (the way ‘is it’ is used, for example) I imagine it would be quite a different (dislocating?) experience.

        • I know what you mean, Irma, but I often have this experience with dialogue and have learned to deal with it. A lot of writing from America, for example, uses speech patterns that are alien to me because I prefer European film and I hardly ever watch TV. No, what I find alienating in NW, as an Australian, is the class consciousness. We’re not as egalitarian as we once were, but I think that for all our faults, we are a more successful multi-cultural, mutli-racial society than Britain, and we don’t as a general rule assign a social rank at birth!

  2. Excellent review, as usual, Lisa. I read a review of White Teeth on a fellow blogger’s site, and I liked it enough to make me want to read Zadie Smith. :-)

  3. Well, this sounds kind of unpleasant, in terms of subject matter. But the jury’s still out for me on Zadie so I think I’m going to give it a go. I loved The Autograph Man, hated On beauty and was lukewarm on White Teeth. This will be the tiebreaker!

  4. Annabel, Celestine, once again I think I’ve read the novels in the wrong order. One of the reviews I read said this was a departure for Zadie Smith but apart from this one I’ve only read On Beauty (which I thought rather dull) so I can’t comment on that. I’ve had White Teeth on my TBR for ages, I should have read it first!

  5. I read this lisa and never got round to reviewing it ,two reasons still not as good as white teeth was and the subject matter in the book never really gripped me ,but like her style of writing and will review it at some point maybe after another quick flick through it ,all the best stu

    • It’s too hard to review everything, Stu, especially when life gets in the way. But I’m curious, did you think it was a fair portrait of London?

  6. My sister bought me a copy of NW for Christmas so I will probably be reading it soon – it sounds interesting but I have heard a lot of mixed reviews and I still haven’t read On Beauty yet either!

    • I love getting books for Christmas:) Somehow they are better than all the other ones that come my way. This year my son gave me Summer Lies by Bernard Schlink, but the best one he ever gave me was Robert Dessaix’s Night Letters. Such a beautiful book!

  7. You are reading some lengthy books at the moment Lisa. I should really read this one as I suspect it will come to be seen as a great London novel along with others By Monica Ali and Deborah levy. Despite your reservations I now want to read it more

    • Indeed I am, Tom, it’s summer holidays and I find that’s the best time to read the big ones!
      I would love to see what you think of this one:)

  8. Hi Lisa – I feel the same way that “Irma” does on NW. I loved White Teeth and have read every subsequent novel of Zadie Smith and have slowly liked each one a little less!! NW I found fractured and just not to my taste. I didn’t like any of the characters and found little that interested me. I wonder if you know these suburbs well you would get more out of it – for me it was so alien and I couldn’t invest any real care for the book or the people who inhabit it. I still consider myself a big fan of Smith though – at this point still based on White Teeth! Actually – I did enjoy On Beauty as well from memory.

    • I am beginning to think that I should read White Teeth, it looks as if it’s her best book!

  9. […] Lisa’s at ANZ Lit Lovers […]

  10. […] see what other bloggers thought of it, please see the (mixed) reviews at ANZLitLovers, KevinfromCanada and […]


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