Contemporary Literature

NW

Zadie Smith is one of those authors that I have been meaning to read forever and, for whatever reason, haven’t gotten to yet. She is fairly prolific, I own a couple books by her, and pretty much everything she has written have gotten generally positive reviews. To that end, I think I wasn’t sure where to start…and that had me in a weirdly paralyzing stasis regarding her works. However, as I was browsing through the library for my next audiobook, I saw a couple by her and had a spur of the moment “now is the time!” reaction. I chose by picking the only audiobook available that I owned a physical copy of. I like having that on hand while listening, in case I want to look back at anything or mark a favorite passage/moment. In any case, that’s how NW won.

NW by Zadie Smith

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“How do you get to be so full? And so full of only meaningful things?”

So according to the inside cover blurb, this is the story of four people, Natalie, Leah, Felix and Nathan, who all live in (or are from) a certain area in the northwest corner of London. It’s about city-living and the people who pass by each other each day, may recognize each other on sight, but are living wildly different lives. Some are “successful” and some are not, some live in a grand home and some are homeless, some have power and prestige while some do not. This is a saga of people’s lives.

I have to start by saying that I really don’t know how I felt about this book. For full disclosure, I listened to it as an audiobook. And the narrators were fantastic. But the writing style itself – choppy in cadence, almost like poetry at times, and quick back and forth dialogue and inner monologue with no written “he said/she said” for clarification, made it difficult to follow at times. So, from the beginning, it was a struggle for me to get fully into the book. I think, after realizing the situation and beginning to reference/follow along in the physical copy, things clarified some. But I think I also realized that, even if I had only read this (and done no audio at all) I still would have struggled to get into the flow of the story. At least for me, the style was a little too avant garde and I felt like perhaps I wasn’t cool or sophisticated enough to really “get” it.

Unfortunately, this disconnect I had with the writing carried over to my connections with the characters and their lives. This is one of those books that does not have a plot, per se. We are dropped into the characters’ lives and given a sort of snapshot of how they live. This includes, for each of them, history and background – so it’s not a “present day only” snapshot. And I did really like the context that gave us as readers, allowing us to see what they were feeling and experiencing through the window of their pasts. This was particularly important in regards to Natalie and Leah, who had been friends since childhood and grown up together. We were able to see the way their relationship changed as they changed, and understand the way they compared themselves to each other as their lives diverged and re-crossed. Honestly, there were many things about their lives that I recognized and empathized with. They experienced many universal (and some universally female) truths, from imposter syndrome to existential concerns about how they’d “made it” to stress over where they were vs where they thought they should be. And, in particular, I identified with Leah’s struggles regarding procreating – and the pressures to have children, even if you are sure it’s not what you want. But despite that, despite sharing all that with these two protagonists, I still felt incredibly distant from their story. Again, I assume part of the reason for my detachment as a reader were the stylistic writing choices Smith made. But I don’t think that’s all it was…

There were other things that I wasn’t sure of while reading. For example, Felix and Nathan. I see where their stories crossed with Leah and Natalie (multiple times, really) and how that added some context and a bit of structure to this otherwise nebulous glimpse into our characters’ lives. But at the same time, I think this should definitely be billed as a story of friendship, Natalie and Leah’s, and Nathan and Felix should not at all be mentioned on the cover flap. Despite there being a bit of an interlude between Leah and Natalie’s “sections” (the two major parts of the story being written from their perspectives) when we get Felix’s story…I didn’t feel like he mattered enough to the two women to warrant a whole section in his voice.  With that, I felt like Nathan and Felix’s connection(s) to the overall story were sometimes so vague as to be unclear. Like, at the end, I felt like I missed an important detail related to Natalie’s evening on the streets with Nathan and went back and reread the whole thing, only to not find the answer to why Natalie felt like he was involved in…the end of Felix’s story (trying not to spoil anything). Maybe I did miss something, but the fact that I couldn’t find it after a listen and a reread means that, at least in my opinion, perhaps it was too cryptic.

Overall, I completely see why this was given acclaim as a book about a city. Truly, this part of London comes alive in Smith’s hands. It’s clear that she is very familiar with it and she breathes that life into it for us as readers. I also felt like her ability to create very real characters is wonderful. They are fully dimensional and authentic. And, as I mentioned, so many of the things they deal with are familiar to me, as I am sure they are to many people. But the crafting of the “plot,” such as it is, and the overall fragmented style of the writing and story-delivery just were not for me. Ah well.


 

Has anyone else read this and felt this way? Maybe this was the wrong Zadie Smith to start with. Are her others different? Do you recommend I try another one? And if so, which one?

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “NW

    1. I feel that. I don’t know if I would have made it through if I was just reading. Listening did help push me along. I’ve heard from a few people that for some reason this one is like, an odd book out, even among big fans. I’ve gotten a lot of advice to try White Teeth next and see if that helps me get into her a little more. So I may try that in the new year…

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  1. I had a very similar experience earlier this year with Swing Time, which was my first Zadie Smith novel. I actually quite liked portions of the story and the ideas Smith puts forward, but I really struggled to get into it as well. I ended up putting it down for several months before returning to it, determined to finish. I can’t say I didn’t like the book, it just had a very odd structure, it also felt like a lot of snapshots of one woman’s life and her relationship with her childhood friend, but something about it made it hard to connect with.

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    1. AH – I so appreciate this comment because after everything amazing I had heard about her writing, I wasn’t sure if I was missing something… I’ve gotten some other comments from people who mentioned I should try White Teeth, so I may do that. I’m down to give her another more shot before I make a final opinion. Hopefully I connect better with that one!

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