NW by Zadie Smith

Last Wednesday, I rushed home after work to feed and walk the dog, then rushed to the Cambridge Public Library to see Zadie Smith read from her new book, NW, and answer questions. Despite minimal advertising for the program, there was a long line; in addition to the auditorium where she was speaking, the CPL staff opened up an auxiliary room and set up a simulcast; I was one of the last four people allowed into the overflow room, and I was glad just to get in.

Smith read two sections from NW, one from the middle where Felix Cooper visits Annie, and one where Natalie Blake is part of a confrontation in a playground. (The book’s title, which refers to northwest London, reflects the author’s belief that “a novel is a local thing.”) Hearing an author read from her own work is nearly always enjoyable, and in this case it also helped give us Americans an idea of what the various NW characters were supposed to sound like (as we follow Smith’s advice, “Read what isn’t you,” e.g. the unfamiliar).

NW is divided into three parts, each focusing on a different character and each with a different narrative style. Felix’s story, in the middle, was the most straightforward, but only tangentially connected to Leah Hanwell and Natalie (formerly Keisha) Blake’s stories. The book opens with Leah, and ends with Natalie, whose section is broken into numbered segments; part of this ran in The New Yorker before the book was published.

As those who have read Zadie Smith’s work before know, she is fiercely intelligent and it can take some effort to keep up with her writing; additionally, in NW, the shifts in writing style will keep you on your toes. All three of the main characters grapple with their past, present, and future: in short, their identities. Though the writing is nontraditional and the characters are confused about who they are, NW has, in a way many other novels don’t, “thematic coherence” that resonates.

Read my full review, with quotes, on Goodreads.

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