NW, by Zadie Smith
More often than not I finish a book without the urge to talk about it. Not NW, the latest from Zadie Smith.
I read White Teeth, Zadie Smith’s lauded first novel, over a winter break from college, when I disappeared into my room Christmas morning instead of celebrating with my family, greedy for chapter after chapter after chapter until I reached the end.
Like the true literati (riiight), I eagerly awaited Smith’s next novels, ready to lose myself in another of her vivid stories. I was interested enough in the short blurb to describe NW: Four Northwest Londoners—Leah, Felix, Natalie and Nathan—try to make adult lives outside of Caldwell, the council estate of their childhood. Unfortunately, NW transported me not to Northwest London but to AP English class, where I couldn’t read a book without self-consciously analyzing each page.
Indeed, Smith masterfully manipulates the form of her novel to reveal more about each of her characters. In the first section, Smith introduces us to Leah, who lives with her hairdresser husband not too far from the housing project of her youth. Facing pressure from family and friends to finally have a child of her own, she struggles to maintain control over her body and her life; like the pressure from the outside, her narrative threatens to engulf her, as long paragraphs free from quotations confuse her own thoughts with others’.
In the short middle section devoted to Felix, a man with a checkered past who’s now determined to do better for himself, Smith assumes a more conventional structure, but small aberrations in form remind the reader he hasn’t quite found his place among the upwardly mobile
In the final section, which follows Leah’s friend Natalie’s ascent out of Caldwell to the upper-middle-class, Smith writes 185 short numbered chapters, sequential but splintered, some only a few fragmented lines, that emphasize Natalie’s incoherent conception of self. Throughout the section, Smith uses the Natalie’s first and last name, further conveying the character’s own sense of detachment.
But while I admire Smith’s capabilities as an artist of the written word, I didn’t grow to care about—or even care for—the characters themselves. I wasn’t absorbed in the story itself. And after I finished, I wasn’t anxious to tell my friends to read the book. No, I was anxious to write a book report of sorts, just like I did in AP English.
(If I were actually an AP English student, I’d probably detail why the literary devices didn’t forge a bond between me and the characters, or something, but I’m a, um, young professional who’s running out of steam.)