I found Zadie Smith’s acclaimed latest novel, NW, a challenge to read. It was a challenge in the sense that I found it difficult to follow the narrative, especially towards the beginning of the book. Characters told their stories in streams of consciousness, alternating poetry and prose to quite bewildering effect. And yet, I felt absolutely compelled to read on, despite being a reader who does not hesitate to abandon a book I don’t “get”, if it spoils my reading pleasure too much (read more of my views on not finishing a book here).
Reading a publisher’s blurb after finishing the novel helpfully set out the main plot elements and the identity of the protagonists, in a far more straightforward way than Zadie Smith does. But I didn’t mind not having read this guide beforehand, I didn’t feel I needed a helping hand to enjoy this novel, because I enjoyed it very much indeed.
I loved that it was purely descriptive, and boy, what beautifully crafted descriptions they were. It described NW, as in North West London, and I understood the generic postcode abbreviation chosen for the title to be not so much, or not only, to set the scene in a geographical, but also in a social sense. The translation to paper of the lives of ordinary people is wonderfully done. And it’s entirely non-judgemental. Not does it offer any suggestions as to how things could be different, how rights could be wronged. This is highly lucid and accurate observation (probably accurate: I don’t live in NW, so people who are better placed than I am to assess the accuracy of the novel’s descriptions are invited to corroborate or contradict), not a dissertation on the whys and wherefores of modern life in North West London.
The author isn’t standing on a soapbox, asking us to reflect on “if only poor people had access to …”, she’s just giving it us straight, a conversation in the style of a pubgoer who’s at the detached yet still coherent stage of getting drunk. And the story rambles on, sometimes a little disjointedly (that’s the alcohol kicking in). Leah, Keisha/Natalie, Felix, the near poltergeist character who irrupts at Leah’s in the opening scene, all make their several, slightly jumbled, appearances and we are invited into their funny-sad extraordinary-everyday lives.
I particularly loved a wonderful scene between Felix and Annie, which I think would be stunning on the stage, probably in comedy mode. Boy visits girl he used to be in a relationship with. They talk, sleep together, have a row, he goes home. But oh, the telling of this short series of events is a masterclass in writing.
The writing was the main joy of this book for me, even it it was startling in places. Maybe what I took to be streams of consciousness were just clinical reports on drug induced hallucinations, but then I’ve lived a sheltered life, away from NW.