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.