For the fourth installment of my nostalgic English major alumni book group, we read NW, new by Zadie Smith. We met on Sunday (my first meeting since Swamplandia!, since I tragically missed the Train Dreams meeting) and discussed.
I read Smith’s On Beauty about four years ago. Fresh out of a messy break-up, I did not love the plot: A cheating husband attempting to hide his affair from his wife is a major storyline. I think I was so distracted by that that I didn’t pay too much attention to the writing style, which Smith is known for. (Her White Teeth, which I have never read, is in my 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.) So I didn’t walk into this the biggest Zadie Smith fan. And I have to say, not much has changed.
NW follows three or four Londoners: Leah, Felix, Natalie, and (marginally) Nathan. All were childhood residents of Caldwell, a housing project in the northwest of London, and all are now adults defined by that childhood—either by remaining in Caldwell or through their attempts to escape.
When a story and its characters are so defined by their environment, I believe that that environment needs to be powerfully understood. Reading NW, there was too much lost in translation for me between the Bay Area and London’s grit. Reviewers (a couple of my book group friends included) laud Smith’s writing style as abstract and absorbing, but for me, it just meant more I had to work through to get anything out of the book—and it just wasn’t quite worth it.
This says almost more about me than Smith, though—my reading style is primarily fast and as such does not mesh well with her primarily subtle writing style. My friend says this is a book that “rewards slowing down and really working through it,” whereas I did not even notice a major change in the book’s last paragraph until someone brought it up. Really, though, I guess I just didn’t find NW‘s rewards enticing enough.
Members of my book group (who, since they actually took lit theory classes instead of completing an entire major with period lit courses as I did, I think of as “real” English majors) described it as “Joycean.” So maybe that means something to you. Also, this.