Day 420: NW

Cover for NWI’m not sure what I think about NW. In reading a few reviews, I almost wish I had come to Zadie Smith first through one of her more traditional novels, as NW is almost a deconstruction of form.

NW is the postal code of an area of northwest London where Smith’s characters were brought up and reside. They were all raised in the same housing project, a group of towers that dominates the area of the impoverished and ethnically mixed Kilburn. In each section of the novel, we follow a different character.

Leah Hanwell has escaped the projects but lives within sight of them in a nicer neighborhood. She is of Irish and English heritage, married to Michel, who is half Algerian, half Guadaloupan. Her best friend Natalie Blake is first generation English of Caribbean origin. It seems that for every character in this novel, ethnic heritage is a mixed bag and not a way to find an identity.

Leah has come to resent Natalie, who has been the most successful of their acquaintances. Leah misses their former closeness and feels they now have little in common, especially since Natalie had children. The issue of children is a stressful one for Leah, who has been secretly taking birth control pills while her husband thinks they are trying to conceive. The only absolute and pure love Leah has to bestow goes to her dog Olive.

Leah is home alone when a woman comes to her door claiming to have an emergency. When the woman recognizes Leah as a former resident of the same building in the projects, all pretence of an emergency seems to disappear as they exchange information about common acquaintances. Even so, Leah impulsively hands over a fairly large sum of money. Afterwards, she vacillates between sympathy for this woman–a drug addict on the con–and a resentment that she’s been cheated. Telling Michel about it sets up a situation that ends badly.

In the second section of the book, Felix starts out his day of running a few errands in a cheerful mood. He is going to visit his father, say goodbye to an old girlfriend, perhaps buy a car. He is happy in his life. He has kicked a drug habit, is in love with his girlfriend, has a good job, and wants to lead a more productive life. We don’t anticipate what happens to Felix.

The bulk of the novel belongs to Natalie, who has remade her life, including changing her name from Keisha. She is a lawyer married to a day trader, with two children. She lives in a beautiful house in an upscale neighborhood. She is outwardly a confident, take-charge woman, but inwardly much more tentative. As one of her friends says, she’s been telling everyone all their lives that she is different from them. Yet surely, her impulse is more to fit in.

Natalie and her husband Frank pretend to be a loving couple, but when they are not out in public they spend little time with each other. Natalie doesn’t enjoy her children, either. Of all the characters, including a homeless drug addict named Nathan that Leah and Natalie had crushes on when they were all kids, she seems the most discontented. In one way, she has erased her former life. In another, she drags it along with her. All she enjoys is her work.

The novel is presented in a fragmented way. Conversations begin in the middle and sentences are cut off. Issues remain unresolved. Dialogue and descriptions are vivid but gritty, such as when Leah and Natalie push a stroller through a trash-lined neighborhood to find an ancient church in the middle of a traffic circle, its tombstones covered in graffiti. Smith’s novel is ambitious, an urban slice of several lives.

A little side note. The paperback copy of this novel has a typo on the back cover where it calls a character by the wrong name. I kept waiting for that character to appear until I figured out what was going on. That’s a pretty big mistake. Just sayin’.

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8 thoughts on “Day 420: NW

  1. Cecilia November 1, 2013 / 3:22 pm

    I read White Teeth a long time ago and don’t remember much about it…I didn’t love it but who knows if I would react differently now.

    This story sounds interesting to me – I can remember and relate to this period in life – but I agree the structure might be kind of distracting or jarring…and quite unbelievable about the typo on the back cover!! I do notice that there seem to be more typos these days….

    • whatmeread November 1, 2013 / 3:28 pm

      I don’t think some publishing companies even have copy editors these days, or maybe they don’t give them enough time to do their jobs. I’m not sure whether it was the structure that bothered me, since I have read several unusually structured novels lately that I liked, or something else. I didn’t understand all the slang, that’s for sure, and the gritty surroundings are not my favorite environment to read about.

  2. A Little Blog of Books and Other Stuff November 2, 2013 / 7:08 am

    NW is not a perfect book but I liked it despite the lack of a linear plot. Shocked to hear about the typo on the paperback cover – I wonder what happened to the person who let that slip!

    • whatmeread November 3, 2013 / 5:15 pm

      Yes, I know. It was a fairly big blunder!

  3. Audra (Unabridged Chick) November 5, 2013 / 10:22 am

    Hmm…I am not sure I would like this one. Sounds kind of agonizing — but Zadie Smith is such a literary rockstar I feel lame for never having read her!

    • whatmeread November 5, 2013 / 10:26 am

      Yeah, that’s how I felt, too. I am still not sure whether I liked this one, but I’ll probably go back and read White Teeth or one of her other books. I am always embarrassed by how many authors and books I haven’t read! Cecilia just posted a list of books she was going to try to finish before the end of the year, and they were much more literary than my pile!

  4. Tvor August 8, 2017 / 7:31 am

    Found you through links from the Literary Wives reviews of On Beauty. I liked Zadie Smith’s White Teeth so much that I’ve picked up most of her books as they’ve been released. Really liked On Beauty, liked Autograph Man, also really liked her recent Swing Time but I really disliked NW. I guess it was the style of writing. It was far too disconnected for me, I couldn’t get into it at all. That stream of consciousness that was so fragmented that it made no sense at all to me, that’s the part that did me in!

    • whatmeread August 8, 2017 / 10:57 am

      I’ve only read NW besides On Beauty. Maybe I need to try White Teeth.

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