NW by Zadie Smith

It’s about several characters with working class, mostly black backgrounds. The two we see most of have left this background behind to some extent; for Natalie this is more deliberate than it is for Leah but they are both very ambivalent about it. To what extent does their new context replace their original context, and how much do they want it to? It’s about the choices and experiences of women in their twenties and thirties, too, as they take on various forms of responsibility and their social identity crystallises. Natalie and Leah both seem to ultimately find this process pretty depressing. The two most important things about this book are social realism and a certain experimentalism in the style of telling. London is seen as a stream of language and consciousness and Smith tries to replicate this to some extent.

There was a point at the end of the first section and at the beginning of the second section when I despised this book, but I got involved again. I didn’t find it that hard to hold onto the thread and care enough about what was happening while it was happening. My problem with the book, I suppose, was just that it felt so dutiful, both the discussion of social issues and the experimentalism. There’s nothing really incisive here, no moments of observation or language that gave me that feeling of “This is true but I haven’t seen it said like that before”. There’s a certain kind of book full of social observations that never seem especially novel or true to me, a kind of book that inevitably includes at least fleeting descriptions of dreadful dinner parties with dreadful pretentious people. I’ve decided you need to go to those dinner parties to feel really enlivened and set free by the truth of any acknowledgement that they’re dreadful. From the outside that, and the rest, all seems a bit too obvious.

I liked White Teeth and On Beauty better. I can’t remember them very well but I remember having more of the feeling that they were giving something about life back to you. This doesn’t quite come to life. The reviews in the inside pages seem a little overexcited just to see an accent on the page.


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