Archive for November, 2013

N-W by Zadie Smith

Amazon describes Zadie Smith’s NW as ‘a brilliant tragi-comic novel which 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.’
Reviewers have been uniformly dazzled but Berwick Book Group readers had mixed feelings about the novel.
Martin’s review was damning: ‘It is difficult to critique a book I have not read, because I could not read it. There were words on the page, but they made no sense. It may be my advanced years but the judgemental part of my brain summarised it as pretentious crap while the reasoning and interpretive part packed its bags and left home. I made 3 attempts to start the book. I also tried skipping through to find something intelligible. In summary, there weren’t enough monkeys employed.’
David also gave up on reading NW the first time round, only managing to finish on his second attempt. He likes experimental modernist writing, and he enjoyed White Teeth, but he felt that NW was thin and lacking in plot. Of the four main characters one, Nathan, was scarcely there – and he found the other three boring. The minor characters, particularly the mothers of Leah and Natalie, were more interesting.
Glynis has a love/hate relationship with Zadie Smith. She loved White Teeth, hated The Autograph Man and, with NW, found herself somewhere between the two extremes. The structure of a short story sitting in the middle of a novella annoyed her, as did the page with the text arranged in the shape of an apple tree – and she was infuriated when she came across the section consisting of numbered paragraphs! However, she discovered that they were, in fact, a brilliant evocation of the lives and friendship of Leah and Natalie as girls and young women. She was less convinced by the older Natalie – particularly her extreme reaction to a common experience for upwardly-mobile young women who have bagged the dream job, the husband, the house, the children and then ask ‘is that it’? She found the conclusion of the novel depressing; it seemed to present a very negative scenario for today’s thirty-something’s.
Paula liked Zadie Smith’s stance on social mobility – that it should not be only about climbing out of the class you are in: working class culture has some value. She loved the dialogue and appreciated the subtle distinctions between – for instance – the characters of Caribbean and African origin. She agreed with Glynis about the problematic ending and felt it was unrealistic to have Natalie going ‘off-piste’ with Nathan Bogle. Speaking of Nathan, she thought Smith indulged in some lazy characterisation at times, settling for broad strokes and stereotype. However, all in all, she enjoyed the book.
I approached the novel with very low expectations, mainly because of all the ‘there’s no plot’ criticism from readers on Amazon. However, I was pleasantly surprised. I felt that there was a strong plot there, but that it was structured around the emotional journeys of the characters rather than a linear narrative. The characters themselves were beautifully drawn – all of them flawed, all doing things to make us dislike them, yet at the same time, winning us over with their complexity and vulnerability. I loved the way Zadie Smith built up their lives for us with snippets and episodes; the small incidents in their lives were so telling and illustrated the bigger picture. So much was left unsaid, leaving us to form our own conclusions. The minor characters were as complex as the main four – I particularly liked the wonderful, tragic Annie. The book was very funny, too – and I enjoyed the way she plays with the reader – for instance, the way we must deduce the ‘quiz’ questions that Leah and Natalie are both answering. I found the story of Felix’ last day very moving, placed as it was just after the news report about him being knifed to death, and I found it interesting that he was the only character who was happy living in NW, showing warmth and fondness towards the area and its characters.
We all agreed that NW was interestingly flawed, rather than a failure.


About the book group

The Berwick Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the First Class Passenger Lounge on the platform of Berwick Train Station at 6.30pm.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit

November 2013
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