Zadie Smith’s newest novel NW delves into an exploration of London, specifically the northwest quadrant of the city. For those unfamiliar with London neighborhoods—like me—it is easy to get confused by all the namedropping of regions; but Smith focuses more on the people who inhabit the neighborhood, making it easy for the reader to compare London to their own city.
The story follows four characters who all started in the same place—Caldwell—but have grown into very different lives. Leah has become a recluse in her own home, trying to avoid getting pregnant despite her husband’s attempts to the contrary. Natalie (formerly Keisha) is having an identity crisis as the past life she shed away comes back to haunt her. Felix is bouncing from job to job and girl to girl in his attempts to discover what will make him happy. And Nathan is leading a shady life that brings him back into contact with old, familiar friends.
These lives become entangled as the characters try to escape their pasts, but the true beauty of the novel lies in Smith’s astute observations of human behavior and culture. It’s the small things that the characters notice or think of and the sharp descriptions that Smith provides that show how keen an observer she is. Such details show the universality of the subject matter despite how contained it is in London’s sphere.
However, the problem with the novel lies in its execution. While Smith easily captures the stream of consciousness of the characters, she ruins it with pretentious contemporary devices that distract the reader, pulling them out of the story. Had she used only one or two of the styles she experiments with, the novel would’ve flowed better, having a stronger impact; but she burdens the novel with so many of these literary devices that reading the novel becomes a chore instead of the pleasure it should be. She is a strong writer, but her reliance on these devices weakens the effect of the novel.
In one of the chapters, Natalie is watching the television with an acquaintance, Marcia. Marcia says, “I hate the way the camera jumps all over the place like that…You can’t forget about the filming for a minute. Why do they always do that these days?” Such an observation by the character could be applied to Smith’s novel. Her novel’s distracting literary devices are the book equivalent of a jumping camera—both pull the reader/viewer out of the world of the text. After Marcia’s statement, Smith writes, “This struck Natalie as a profound question.” It seems that Smith herself finds this a profound question, but whether she found her answer in this novel is hard to tell.
There are plenty of great things to be found in this novel. Smith has a clear grasp of the English language, and she uses it effortlessly. But it is too easy to get bogged down in the style of the novel and lose all sense of the magic that Zadie Smith has as a writer (unless that was her goal all along, in which case the joke is on us).
- Lamenting the Modern: On Zadie Smith’s NW (themillions.com)
- Review: Zadie Smith’s Novel “NW” Explores Black Upward Mobility (goodblacknews.org)
- The Fullness of Time: A Review of Zadie Smith, NW (frontpsych.com)