So, the title of this book is written “NW,” but it is said “Northwest.” That’s not that confusing, but just making it clear. And by “Northwest,” we mean an area of London, which is definitely what this book is about (and during a certain time period: it was published in 2012, and if you look at the history that pops up in the peripheral vision of the story, it takes place during the couple decades bridging the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It is specific. As in, there will be things lost over time and over space on this one. Forty-year-olds from the dodgy end of London are going to relate best. (This is part of Zadie Smith’s oeuvre (am I using that right?), at least in what I have so-far read. London. Classes. Race. During her lifetime.) This isn’t true of all (or even most) literature, but this one has plenty of cultural references that keep it in some ways from being universal. However, there are things about its style and content that result in one of my readerly friends giving it five stars and a glowing (and highly academic) review. He is neither British nor from NW. The reason it gets lower reviews is that yes, some people sorta hate it. But many people also appreciate it. I fall in the middle.
There isn’t exactly a plot here (see below). Basically, though, NW follows (nonchronologically) two characters, Leah and Keisha, from their dramatic meeting as children through their young adulthood and about to middle-age. They are both from the poorer part of town, but while they both head to the same university, one of them ends up with a wealthy husband, as a barrister (read: lawyer), with kids, in a fancy part of town. The other does not. There are subplots involving a murder, not wanting to have kids, a girl who swindles one of them, and some others that will be spoilers if I say. Actually, the whole thing is a little out there (like dramatic), but Smith had to put some juicy bits in to get readers, amiright?
Call me crazy, but I like a good plot. This book is much more about relationship and socioeconomics than it is about some sort of plot (pinkies up!). It throws itself in the face of conventionality in more than one way, and, well, more modern literature is often like “What? Who cares that humanity has always liked some sort of hero’s journey? We’re past that.” Are we, though? (This is a question I’ve been asking about a lot of books, movies, and series lately.) Smith goes much further, however. She throws out typical plot and usual plot development (like a plot line), deals in antiheroes (talk about that in a moment), and shakes up the whole chapter, paragraph, sentence, POV, etc. thing. This is one of those books that I think will read better if the reader is warned about the structure of the book they are about to read. Otherwise, it can be confusing. Well, it can be confusing either way, but I believe that when you are caught off-guard it can lead to a type of annoying that is going to ruin the book for you, or just have you realize too late that it was the type of book you never would have enjoyed. Separated into four (or is it five?) sections, each section has its own language-structural schtick, but this doesn’t eliminate the possibility of schtick-changing at any point in the telling. Never does Smith revert to what you would expect to see (and mentally hear) on the page, as in indented paragraphs, dialogue in quotation marks, consistent font, etc. And when the reader thinks they sorta understand how to read these undivided back-and-forths and figure out who might be talking and who might be thinking, it changes. There is some stream-of-consciousness going on here, but also some artistic experimentation that I personally don’t think works 100% of the time. Thanks for trying, though? For being brave and expanding the possibilities? It doesn’t go as far as, say, House of Leaves, but read it if you want, or even enjoy, someone to mess around with not only literary presentation but also your reader flow. You’ll need brain power and patience.
And I said we would also talk about antiheroes. I reread White Teeth recently and this is a characteristic of that book, as well. Based on these two book, I would say Smith’s writing is a slowly simmering dysthymia, maybe even depression. I mentioned it in the other review, but there is very little joy, hope, or likeable characters (or any in this one). If one writer might describe the titillation or intimacy of sex, Smith is going to zoom in on the drug use during it, the guilt, the removal of the tampon. Like seriously. This is an actual scene. Some readers love this gritty stuff. How very bohemian of them. I prefer my mundanity (even darkness) with a splash of redemption, please. This is a preference by no means universal, but very common. Don’t expect any heroes, nor to be any better off at the end; expect to be more appalled at everyone’s behavior, actually. Perhaps that is part of the point. Not to be too weird, but I can’t really relate to this. I do lead a nice life but it is not without its struggles and issues. However, these characters are fairly deviant even in their “brightest” moments. I know, I looked it up. This is no more realistic to me than a princess fairy tale, just totally different. Also, for some reason, the cover copy of this book consistently says it is about four people. It is not. It is about two people. Leah and Natalie/Keisha. Other characters come in here and there. Glad we sorted that out.
But Smith is a great writer and her writing is worth reading, at least for readers who don’t mind a challenging book and denser copy. Her writing is actually beautiful, even if it refers to ugly things. She deeply observes and considers, and NW is a bit more mature than White Teeth. Smith impresses you with her wordcraft and then forces you to ask questions about the world and also about literature itself. Certainly, this book could be taught, dissected, likewise considered. While my ADHD was going haywire during the 185 mini-chapter section, the craft is playful even while the story is not. Like an effective comedian (though not funny), Smith’s commentary can be so cutting because it observes that which we all experience in a new and pointed way. While the writing is not very clear, the scenes we see are vibrant with detail, like impressionism. I did fall somewhere in between loving and hating this book, much closer to loving. I enjoyed it. I sometimes sighed in irritation at it. I wished for messages of greater things and a plot I could stick on a diagram (even if revealed to me unconventionally. The truth is, people can’t even agree about the “ending” of this book because it never really says what happened, exactly. I have a feeling there are clues throughout the book, but the language acrobatics detract from us catching them). I had a hard time sticking with it, but I was also entertained and maybe a little educated.
“Leah opens her eyes wide to store the details for Michel, which is one of the things marriage means. Drawn to the wrong details” (p44).
“Nathan Bogle: the very definition of desire for girls who had previously only felt that way about certain fragrant erasers” (p50).
“To live like this you would have to forget everything that came before. How else can you manage?” (p70).
“Mothers are urgently trying to tell something to their daughters, and this urgency is precisely what repels their daughters, forcing them to turn away” (p84).
“Wouldn’t one of the humans have said the word ‘vet’ by now if they did not dear how much money saying ‘vet’ would entail?” (p95).
“Rodney had in his hand an abridged copy of an infamous book by Albert Camus. Both Keisha Blake and Rodney Banks sounded the T and the S in this name, not knowing any better: such are the perils of autodidacticism” (p226).
“It’s a good tip for the court: don’t imagine your contempt is invisible. You’ll find out as you mature that life is a two-way mirror” (p284).
“Women come bearing time” (p316).
“She had been eight for a hundred years. She was thirty-four for seven minutes” (p329).
“If you had any real self-respect or self-esteem, argued Natalie, one person asking you to put a cigarette out in a fucking playground would not register as an attack on your precious little ego” (p339).
“Was it possible not only to have contempt for the people who kept time for you? Was it also possible to love them?” (p341).
“She peered over into the pit that separates people who have known intolerable pain from people who haven’t” (p394).