NW by Zadie Smith


Reviews of this book that came out in 2012 said that it was challenging to read. I was influenced by that but took note that Jennifer spoke highly of it and now finally, I have listened to it. I loved it. 

In some ways the audiobook was challenging; it's almost inevitable that you miss the occasional bit if you listen while walking in a noisy place as I often do. In parts of this book, it's hard to tell if you missed something or if it was just not there. And the language differences of the multi-ethic characters made it more opaque. On the positive side for the audiobook, the dialog, whether it was between the characters or playing in a character's head, was enhanced by hearing rather than reading. When I finished the book, I read an essay in an online academic collection and Anne Enright's NYT review. Enright described the prose as "fractured," not a negative, but good to know. Smith's lapses into poetry were lovely. 

SPOILER ALERT!! Sorry, can't do this without revelations.

Four characters who live in the same area of London had all grown up in Caldwell in a council estate. The most attention is given to Keisha who becomes Natalie as she worked to realize her ambition to become a barrister. She has mixed feelings about her origins and likes to think she hasn't left it all behind. She feels empty unless she's working. She maintains her friendship with Leah, who hasn't the drive that would cause her to stop smoking weed. Leah did well through college and works as a social worker, but has doubts about whether the beauty of her husband Michel was reason enough to marry him and be true partners. They are both very uncomfortable at Natalie's swanky dinner parties.

The section which describes a day in the life of Felix is poignant when it turns out that it is the last day of Felix's life. He is working to turn his life around and stop using drugs, thanks to the inspiration of his love for Grace. During this day, he visits his unapologetically disgraceful father, looks at an old rusted out MG he is considering buying from a young adman, and drops in on an old aristocratic girlfriend who defends her booze and drug-filled life. On the bus home he speaks up for a pregnant woman who wanted a seat and in an encounter with the punks after they get off the bus, he is knifed during what he thought would be a routine mugging.

Nathan Bogle was Leah's middle school heartthrob who turns up at the end of the book. Natalie encounters him when she roams her old neighborhood after her money-man husband discovers her secret sexual life with strangers. In the intense conversation with Nathan she observes that he appears to be a pimp and he tells her that his life is a daily struggle to survive. We learn later that he was one of the men who knifed Felix.

For me the best is hearing the many voices of such a difficult place. Smith successfully portrays complicated lives in a world far from my own. This book is wildly different from the other book of hers that I've read (On Beauty) and I loved them both.

Zadie Smith NW, Penguin Press, 2014, 401 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon. 



  • The review of this story reminds me of what I liked so much about “Manchester By the Sea”. The characters are reckless or damaged to a degree where the stories of people close to me don’t look so bad by comparison.


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