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!

Lucy
It's good to meet you! I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books. I also climb mountains, go on solo adventures, and write over at livewildly.co.