NW by Zadie Smith

I gave a slightly mixed review of ‘White Teeth‘ by Zadie Smith last year.  I enjoyed it more than I thought I would but it did have a few flaws.  Over a decade after her first novel was published when she was just twenty-five years old, Smith now offers us ‘NW’, another ambitious and sprawling novel which focuses on four thirty-something characters – Leah, Felix, Natalie and Nathan – who all grew up on the Caldwell council estate in north-west London and find that their lives continue to overlap many years later.

Reviews of ‘NW’ on various blogs have been decidedly mixed and I can see why.  It is one of those books where it’s difficult, if not impossible, to pin down a genre on it beyond the hazy realm of literary fiction.  It contains various characters, events, places and relationships and yet there is only the barest hint of a real plot which hangs it all together.  In many parts, the story felt either unpolished or even unfinished and reads more like a series of snapshots than a coherent linear narrative.  Inevitably, some readers will find this frustrating.  

However, just like with ‘White Teeth’, I enjoyed ‘NW’ more than I thought I would.  Despite the fragmentary nature of the plot, the writing and characters were interesting enough overall to hold my attention.  In particular, I was immediately struck by the authenticity of the dialogue and not just because of the use of slang but rather Smith’s good ear for how people genuinely speak.  Smith’s writing is quite experimental as demonstrated by her use of different narrative techniques but thankfully, she mostly avoids becoming too self-indulgent by keeping ‘NW’ to a reasonable length of just under 300 pages.  

On the other hand, I am not sure ‘NW’ really deserves to win the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year.  For me, a worthy winner of a literary award requires both memorable writing and a strong plot and unfortunately, ‘NW’ definitely lacks the latter.  Nevertheless, ‘NW’ is a realistic and dynamic portrayal of modern, urban London which features an interesting collection of characters.  It might require a bit of perseverance but ultimately, it is an engaging read.

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “NW by Zadie Smith

  1. I have read several of those mixed reviews you mention and having enjoyed White Teeth and Autograph man enormously and liked On Beauty I still can’t decide if I want to read it or not. Thanks for your review though you are helping to tip me towards yes 🙂

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  2. Interesting. I really enjoyed White Teeth but still thought it was very over-rated. And her second novel, Autograph Man, was simply a disappointing read all round. I did however, absolutely love On Beauty and so was looking forward to this book… the negative reviews have worried me but I’m definitely still going to give it a go.

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  3. Dave Quayle

    Not many had anything good to say about ‘Autograph man’, heavanali, but I’m with you, liked it a lot. I’d say NW is right up there with ‘White teeth’ as a London novel, no problems.

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  4. I agree with you, I wanted it to have a way stronger plot than it did. It was fine but not great

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  5. Zadie Smith is one of my favorite writers, but I was very disappointed with NW. I can’t put my finger on why, but it just didn’t wow me like some of her other works do.

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  6. Perhaps of interest?
    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2008/nov/20/two-paths-for-the-novel/?pagination=false
    From what I’ve read, Smith was concerned with the predictability of the current form of the novel (and this includes our expectations about plot). I’m a fan. Loved White Teeth aside from the made for TV ending. The others were fine, but her okay works are better than a lot of people’s best works.

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  7. I’ve been a fan of Zadie Smith after I read White Teeth and On Beauty. I started reading NW but never finished it. What I had read of it, I found refreshing. While I agree with your assessment of the plot line (from what I read), I feel like the writing style was innovative enough to pull me through the book The library, however, does not give nearly enough time to delve into a book of this nature and I really must buy it. When reading it, it reminded me a lot of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway—-this stab at stream of consciousness with a Zadie Smith twist. Even if NW had several flaws, I think it shows her progress and innovation as a writer. I look forward to finishing the novel and reading her works to come.

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  8. I love your review, but Zadie Smith and I just don’t get along. I’m not really sure why but I just cannot seem to get into it. My loss, I know.

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  9. I should read some Zadie Smith but somehow I just don’t feel like it. Her books do not call my attention and with this review you just nailed it. Of course she must have good stories, but are they really that good? However, this is not an opinion you can really voice out because her migrant-experience themes are well-known for their rigour. Everyone seems to love her.

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  10. I have tried to read this book, but gave up – I just wasn’t getting into it. And I was surprised because I have read a lot of her non-fiction and loved it. May give it another try… but may not.

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  11. Pingback: The Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist Readings | A Little Blog of Books and Other Stuff

  12. Pingback: Swing Time by Zadie Smith | A Little Blog of Books

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