Sunday, 24 November 2013

Changing My Mind About... NW by Zadie Smith

NW by Zadie Smith
NW by Zadie Smith - an intelligent novel
or just jumbled? Source.
I haven't read any other reviews of Zadie Smith's latest novel, NW, yet, despite it being published during Autumn last year. However, I'd like to write my review first to avoid getting too caught up in the thoughts of others. Here's a brief summary of the novel:

Zadie Smith's brilliant tragi-comic NW follows four Londoners - Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan - after they've left their childhood council estate, grown up and moved on to different lives. From private houses to public parks, at work and at play, their city is brutal, beautiful and complicated. Yet after a chance encounter they each find that the choices they've made, the people they once were and are now, can suddenly, rapidly unravel. A portrait of modern urban life, NW is funny, sad and urgent - as brimming with vitality as the city itself.

NW was not an easy read by any means. I started it on my way out to Spain towards the end of August, and I've only just finished it now, in late

November. This has something to do with the reading difficulties I've been having (which have become more bearable after I discussed them here on the blog, alongside my choice to read more audiobooks and paperbacks than ebooks), but the choppy, unsettled tone and structure of the book was mostly accountable.

Before I finished the novel last week, I was thinking that I definitely wouldn't be reviewing it here on the blog. For one, how could I encourage others to read it if I hadn't enjoyed it? Moreover, what would I fill a blog post about it with?

Yet here I am, writing about NW, and I think I'll use this post to outline why I changed my mind. Perhaps it's interesting to note here that Zadie Smith has a collection of essays entitled Changing My Mind - maybe I will turn to these at some point!

To be brief, my problems with the book were the following:

  • It was often dense, confusing and difficult to read
  • It wasn't something I could spend large chunks of time reading
  • I often felt like I wasn't getting anywhere with the book.

Zadie Smith author
Zadie Smith, author of novels including NW and On BeautySource.

However, the following factors changed my mind about NW:

  • Zadie Smith's descriptions of race tend to be fascinating. I studied the treatment of race in her previous novel, On Beauty, at length during my last year of university, and spent a lot of time listening to my lecturer's thoughts on hybridity, transatlantacism, and mixed race identity. Smith expresses a focus on race throughout her writing, and it's particularly interesting to see how she presents mixed race friendships in a city as multicultural as London. 
  • NW also got me thinking about Paul Gilroy's use of 'roots' and 'routes' in his critical work on race, with 'roots' referring to someone's ancestry and origins, and 'routes' referring to the journey that they take (for instance, the routes of slaves from Africa to America). 
  • Keisha Blake (who becomes Natalie Blake in adolescence) undergoes a compelling transformation from poor council estate child to successful lawyer. For various reasons I tend to enjoy novels in which the characters transcend hardship. 
  • The virtue of working hard comes into this, although I'm not sure if this is with some irony. Does Smith truly believe that by working hard anyone can escape life on a council estate, or any poverty or deprivation for that matter? Are there not limits? Does Zadie Smith's personal experience come into this, whether she's being ironical or not?

NW is an infuriating novel, but it gets you thinking and leads to conversation. I think a novel is truly bad when you can't find anything to say about it, and NW has given me a lot to talk about. Will I ever return to the novel? Almost certainly not. Will I read other novels by Zadie Smith? Certainly.

Also: Check out Brian's lovely review of my ebook over on his blog, Babbling Books!


Rivorniel Tinubelin said...

I am still determined to read NW at some point, although looking at it realistically (as if November is about to end), it's not gonna be an autumn read after all.

I read a few pages from the beginning at some point and I also realised that this will not be especially fluid read, and maybe a bit at a time. I haven't read any other Zadie Smith book either so I have no idea what to expect!

However, any book that makes you think is a good one, and I'll be keeping the points you brought out in mind while reading :)

Brian Joseph said...

As I tend to like out of the box writing as well as challenging
books this actually sounds enticing. Denseness and moving slow are also not usually problems for me as long as I feel that there is some value in the writing. The journey and not the destination thing is kind of like how I look at books these days . Of course, if one cannot find such a value then the book becomes problematical.

I also try not to read the thoughts of others until I have
written commentary.

Lee-Anne said...

I loved Zadie Smith's "On Beauty" which I read when it first came out. I was most interested in it for the inspiration Smith drew from E. M. Forster, but I thoroughly loved her way of creating characters. It sounds like "NW" is a very different reading experience. Good for you for sticking with it and focusing on the positives of the experience.

tolstoytherapy said...

Hi Lee-Anne :) I enjoyed On Beauty too! The links to Howards End were really interesting, as were her characters and all the thinking she put into forming their hopes and dreams.

NW was an interesting and thought-provoking book, but it's not very.... likeable. I'm not sure if that's the word that fits my feelings most, but since writing this post I've come across a lot of negative reviews from others! I would recommend it, but it certainly demands a lot of time and effort.

Hope to be in touch in the next day or so - things have been crazy lately and I'm getting very behind with blogging duties!


tolstoytherapy said...

They're good virtues to have as a reader, Brian! I agree that it should be about the journey of reading a book rather than reaching its end... if I find myself counting how many pages are left I know I need to reassess my book choice and consider if it's right for me to read at that stage in my life. It can also suggest I need to minimise distractions and focus more on the writing in front of me, however!

tolstoytherapy said...

I'll keep an eye on your blog in case you do make time to read it!

It's definitely not a speedy read, but it's made me want to read Zadie Smith's other novels. I've only read On Beauty before, and that took me some time to get through as well.

Maybe wait until you feel in the right mind to start it properly!