On the reality of the novel (but also on unicorns)- NW, by Zadie smith, book review

13537891This sounds a lot more pompous than it really is, as I’m sure I don’t possess the brainpower (ever, but most especially now, as I haven’t had a coffee yet) to really reflect on reality and fiction, and the place of the former in the latter. But you could say it is the role of the fool to endeavour things he cannot achieve, so let’s.
A bit of context might be welcomed, she realized after rambling for so long. So, NW:
This is a book split into different narrative styles following for characters living in North West London: first we have Leah, a young woman who has a philosophy degree but works in an office, is married to a French Caribbean man who wants children, which she doesn’t but doesn’t know how to say it, and gives money to a woman in some distress who turns out to be a fraud. Her husband and (now estranged) best friend, Nathalie, laugh at her naivety. That first part is written in a stream of consciousness style, with no clear cut between speech and narrative, no clear continuity between sentences. It reflects Leah’s difficulty in creating a continuous narrative making sense to her, and her experience of time as a subjective, discontinuous process.
In the other parts we then follow Felix, an ex-addict, as he goes through his day in the same part of London. The style is more fluid, more traditional, which makes Felix’s narrative rather easier to empathize with (all the better to be hit by what happens to him, but that shan’t be disclosed here).

Another part of the novel is Natalie’s narrative. Natalie (formerly Keisha, who went to school with Leah, now works as a barrister and lives in a fancy house), struggles with feelings of not belonging, of discontentment, which doesn’t seem to be cured by her successful family and professional life. Again, the narrative is more abrupt.
What brings them all together, at the end of that day, feels like Smith’s hitting the reader on the head with reality: don’t get carried away with Felix’s relative lyricism, shit happens even to the most hopeful character. And the tiding up of the plot, paradoxically, is probably a lot more realistic than the one of White Teeth,but to me it felt less so. Probably because it is supposed to feel like a break in the narrative, a reminder that fiction, sometimes, needs to be as disappointing as reality. So I enjoyed it less than her other two novels, because this refusal of lyricism, of novelization of the plot, and I’m still struggling to know why, as I usually don’t enjoy more far-fetched conclusions.
Maybe it has nothing to do with the plot, and it is about characters: there again, it is probably the reality of the characters that made them less likeable (both females Natalie and Leah, and the difficulty they have to make sense of their present in a continuous sense, and the lack of satisfaction they feel in life). They are brilliant character portrayals of complex women and practical experiments in climbing the social ladder, and again, I would have welcomed a satisfied one,but the really hopeful character, Felix, isn’t given a chance to control his destiny. I don’t know why it nagged me, I’m usually happy with tortured people (a sentence which, I fully realize, might be used in court against me).
Anyway, possibly due to all this, possibly not, I didn’t like it emotionally as much as I liked her other novels, but intellectually just as much. By anyone else, I would have probably said this is a brilliant book. But her two other novels where – what I had rarely encountered elsewhere – admirable mixes between literary exploration of style and great narrative structures with complex but emotionally likeable characters. So from this I expected the same combination, maybe at the expense of reality, maybe just the tail of a sparkling unicorn, somewhere. That I was disappointed it didn’t show up probably is more a critic on me than on the book (this, apparently, is turning into Introspection Saturday!)
Anyway, would love to hear your thoughts about it, which will probably be a lot more sane than mine. Sorry if it doesn’t make a lot of sense to you if you haven’t read it (even more so if you have!)
“Sometimes, one wants to have the illusion that one is making ones own life, out of one’s own resources”

2 thoughts on “On the reality of the novel (but also on unicorns)- NW, by Zadie smith, book review

  1. How intriguing! I have such a long tbr list at the moment, but your review makes me want to shunt this up the pile to see what I make of it. To be honest, I loathed ‘White Teeth’ and swore never to read another Zadie Smith, until ‘On Beauty’ was one month’s bookgroup choice. My reluctance to read it was rapidly and dramatically overturned by the fine characterisation and luminous prose. I’m really curious to know how NW compares to my previous experiences!


    • Ooh, divided indeed! I’m trying to figure out how that book would compare if you’ve loved On Beauty’s prose and hated White Teeth, and I can’t come up with a prediction, will have to wait for your review;)


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