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Published on October 11th, 2012 | by Alicia Coombes


Review: NW by Zadie Smith

It is a rare occasion to read a book and feel it messing with your head: such is the case with Zadie Smith’s newest novel, NW. Titled after the postal code of northwest London in which it is set, NW gives readers a glimpse into the lives of four people — Leah, Keisha (renamed Natalie as an adult), Felix and Nathan — who all grew up in the same housing project as kids. Each contributes to the ethnic and racial stew of the neighborhood: Leah is white and her husband is a mix of Algerian and Guadaloupean, while Natalie is Caribbean and her husband is Italian and Trinidadian.

The “messing with your head” part comes in through the fragmented, out-of-context stories that shift in style and follow none of the rules of time. Each section changes tone and syntax, and the book only reveals snatches of information at a time. From page to page, you never quite know which bits of information will be important or when they might come up again. Occasionally, the narrative even interrupts itself to remind the reader to “pay attention” or “keep up!” The result is the sense that these stories are both the idle gossip of strangers and archetypal plays. It’s delicious.

It took awhile to get into the first section of the book — Smith continuously holds the characters at arms-length, and I needed to re-read passages in order to follow what was happening. Once the action started, however, I was hooked. The first section delves into the life of Leah, who begins to describe the neighborhood to the reader through her fuzzy sense of time and obsession with details. We learn that she is married but attracted to women; her husband wants to have children but she does not; and she has a love-hate relationship with Natalie, her childhood best friend, who is preoccupied with her seemingly perfect life.

The book then shifts to follow Felix, who goes through the motions of an ordinary day. We follow him as he meets with his father, tries to buy a beat-up vintage car and visits his ex-girlfriend’s flat in order to break it off with her. Smith shines here in her skill at creating a character that is likable though lacking in moral judgement. By the end, I liked Felix, so much so that when he gets into an altercation at the end of his section, it’s with regret that I discover his fateful outcome.

Natalie’s section — a rundown of her childhood as it became entwined and untangled from Leah’s friendship — is perhaps the most fractured, yet most enjoyable, section of NW. In the form of very short vignettes, the section divulges how young Keisha becomes adult Natalie, and how the choices Natalie makes lead to the miserable relationships in her adult life at the end of the book. Sometimes the titles of the vignettes are longer than the content, underlining the fractured quality of the writing. But the thing that most stood out to me was the playful tone of this final section set against the darkness of the material.

The final piece of the puzzle is Nathan, who Natalie encounters at the end of her section. He remains the most elusive and mysterious of all of NW‘s characters since Smith never lets the reader hear from him personally. Though Smith displays her ability for masterful storytelling by shifting between characters’ different points of view, the narrator still keeps her distance, never digging too deeply into personal motivations and innermost thoughts; rather, the characters seem to act more like pinballs bouncing through their circumstances, with no warning as to where they might go next.

Finally, we return to Leah, and Smith gives us the chance to see the neighborhood and its inhabitants freshly through her eyes once again. The book ends with each character’s life dramatically changed (mostly for the worst); however, you get the sense that major changes were necessary for any sort of resolution to be reached. Both heartbreaking and realistic, I found this to be a very intriguing way to wrap up the story.

Despite the morally irredeemable choices they all make, Smith crafts characters that are fascinating and layered. I immensely enjoyed the disquiet of the prose, and how its layers could forever be folded back to reveal more ugliness and beauty at the same time. NW was a wonderful read and I hope to revisit the neighborhood and its denizens again.

Final Score

Summary: Smith crafts characters that are both fascinating and complex. I immensely enjoyed the disquiet of the prose, and how the narrative's layers could forever be folded back to reveal even more.


Heartbreakingly Realistic

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About the Author

Alicia Coombes is a dramaturg, director and writer. Growing up in rural Oklahoma as an outsider with a flair for the dramatic, she wasn’t exposed to very much art or theatre outside of rodeos and Halloween Hell Houses. Luckily as a teenager her family returned to the Bay Area and she quickly immersed herself in more arts and culture than she had imagined was possible. She still has a particular soft spot for the dramatic (and clowns, perhaps from the rodeo days). She graduated from San Francisco State University with a BA in Theatre with an emphasis in Dramaturgy. She was Aurora Theatre Company’s Literary Manager and Artistic Assistant for four seasons and served as resident dramaturg for the 2011-2012 Season. She has worked in many aspects of the theatre with several other Bay Area companies including Crowded Fire Theater, Marin Theatre Company, Z Space/Word for Word, Golden Thread, Woman’s Will, and CalShakes and is currently the Company Manager for San Francisco’s foolsFURY Theater.

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