Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Zadie Smith's NW: Playful, Poetic, Passionate

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 a 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 noting 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.


  1. I really liked her novel White Teeth -- so I will have to check out NW. It got some mixed reviews but you seemed to really dig it ... so I will put it back on my TBR list

    1. I'd take the mixed reviews with a grain of salt - there are a ton of people out there who take a perverse pride in hating on Zadie, and I've never been able to figure out why. NW is a GREAT book!

  2. I actually enjoyed Zadie Smith's writing style, and loved the Natalie section as well! But I honestly feel like I missed how some of it comes together. Some of the connections I fully understood, while others left me hanging. It's a challenging read for sure, but I had a difficult time with it.