Saturday, April 20, 2013

NW by Zadie Smith

A glimpse at modern day London 

NW presents the interior lives of three characters in their mid-30's: Leah, Keisha/Natalie and Felix, the success stories of Caldwell, a London housing project. A fourth character, drug addict Nathan, drifts in and out of the plot like lightening. The writing was stupendous, imaginative and entertaining, although the book didn’t quite feel like a fully integrated novel, but more like three and a third novellas.  The individual stories never seemed to merge and the book fell apart at the end with implausible midnight hysterics.  However, a failed novel of Zadie Smith is many times more interesting than a perfect novel by someone else.

One of the themes is betrayal. The novel even starts with a con. The women betray their husbands, and Felix is betrayed by the neighborhood, or Fate, or his hopes of escaping.  The motivations for the two women’s actions are embedded in their characters, but are not supported strongly enough to justify the really unforgiveable betrayals each inflict on their husband. Yes, Leah likes being childless, and Keisha/Natalie likes orgasms but these likes don’t seem powerful enough to derail Leah's inherent kindness and Natalie’s inherent caution. Out of all the sections, Felix’s is written the most traditionally, it actually gets a little dull, then gets very interesting.  The reader begins to care about him and his struggles, then whomp. Betrayal. (Of the reader?)

Another theme is class and race, about striving to get ahead, about trying to become someone different, an affluent stranger.  Can it actually be done?  Or have you only succeeded in being an imposter in both worlds?  Each section devoted to a particular character is written in a particular style. The Keisha/Natalie section (an intellectual/sexual history) is made up of numbered paragraphs and is really funny. (Though full of references which in coming years will need to be footnoted.) The number 37 has a magical meaning in this book I couldn’t figure out. In the numbered section it’s missing. But there are many thoughtful observations on the way we live now. I definitely plan to reread.

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