Zadie Smith’s “NW” – book review

Zadie Smith’s NW is ostensibly a novel about three people who grew up in Willesden, North-West London. But is primarily a novel about the ramifications of class and social background in modern Britain.

Leah and Keisha have been best friends since they were children. Ever since Keisha saved Leah’s life in a public swimming pool, the two have been inseparable. Yet Keisha “could not start something without finishing it…. This compulsion… manifested itself as “intelligence’. Every unknown word sent her to a dictionary…and every book led to another book, a process which of course could never be completed. ” She decides to become a barrister, changing her name to Natalie and alienating herself from her family and friends in the process.

Leah meanwhile struggles with her husband’s wish to have a baby. When a stranger knocks at her door, she is determined to help, even though her family is convinced that she is being defrauded of her money.

Felix is in love, and for the first time in his life feels that happiness is an achievable goal. He is about to be murdered. (This isn’t a spoiler –we know he die before he is even introduced into the plot)

The novel is non-linear – it ignores a strictly chronological order of events and jumps between different plot-lines. That said, Zadie Smith’s experimental streak does not interfere with the novel’s strong narrative drive. The book is hard to put down. Only in the first few chapters of the novel did I struggle to understand what was going on.

One of the best scenes in the novel is when Keisha’s mum, Marcia, watches a reality TV show about people living on a council estate. She is full of scorn for those TV characters who “cannot keep their house clean” while she is a proper church-going citizen.
There is considerable irony here –Marcia fails to understand that her own children are perilously close to the characters being portrayed on TV.  But she is right. The TV portrayal is overdramatized and unfair. One might argue, however, that the very unfairness of such a portrayal is therapeutic, as it allows her to feel superior about her life in comparison to that of the TV characters.

This is a very well-written book, and I enjoyed it a lot. It makes me think that I should probably get my hands on Swing-Time, Zadie Smith’s latest novel, as that is apparently a story of two female friends. I definitely felt that female friendship was the great strength of NW.

That said, however, I still have a vague feeling of dissatisfaction in connection with NW and I can’t quite place why.

Is it because I don’t particularly like the main characters? But then I shouldn’t really feel obliged to like the main characters, should I? Is it because I’ve been reading Joseph Conrad and John Steinbeck and everything feels weaker in comparison?

NW is a very good novel though.

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