NW may not have the punch of White Teeth, but Zadie Smith’s novels have matured alongside her, and this portrayal of London captures something real
Zadie Smith’s latest novel NW is not really ‘new’ anymore; it was published September of last year. I was initially put off reading it by two negative responses published in The Guardian when it first came out: the first a ‘digested read’ by John Crace (which is quite funny) and the second a review by Adam Mars-Jones. I didn’t properly read the review, I skipped the parts that I thought were going to give away the story, because I hate it when reviewers do that. If I had read it properly I would have seen that Mars-Jones was the type of man who calls a book ‘chick lit’ because it contains mention of pregnancy, and I would have known to ignore him.
There were also two factors urging me to read the book. The first was that I like the cover, designed by John Gray, a Peter Blake-esque target with heavy black and white lettering filled in with old maps. The second was that it was bought for me as a present, a signed hardback copy that couldn’t be ignored, and put pain to any review-related hesitation.
Mars-Jones (as others have) compared NW’s rambling form to Ulysses, and then complained about lack of stable plot, saying that it is not a successful novel ‘though it contains the makings of three or four.’ I agree that compared to White Teeth – Smith’s first and still most famous novel – NW does not have such a succinct storyline. In that taut debut, everything leads towards a big bang at the end; however this plot is more real. I really felt London in summer: intimations of believable places, situations and dialogue. I myself would compare the novel to Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, or Pat Barker’s Union Street – novels in which the characters are used foremost to explore and present a specific place and time in history rather than as drivers of a complicated plot.
Smith puts heavy emphasis on the form of the novel, using different sections organised in different ways: one in numbered chapters, another in numbered short paragraphs with appropriate headings. In one of these numbered paragraphs – headed ‘Stage Directions’- Smith briefly turns the character Natalie’s life into a play (a device used also by Joyce). There are also frequent colloquial direct-address comments made by a third-person non-participant narrator such as, “You’re welcome”. At the back of the book there is a photo of Smith, wearing a crimson scarf tied around her hair. Directly underneath are the words “Zadie Smith was born in North-West London in 1975”. These details gave me the impression that she wanted the reader to know that she was part of the story; her beautiful freckled face seemed to be saying, “I wrote all these words”.