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NW by Zadie Smith


It was in the summer of 2010 that I first took the journey from Reading to North West London. Destination: Willesden Green, for a preliminary discussion of a job interview. I got off at Dollis Hill station walked towards graffiti-laden walls next to a basketball court. Group of youth loitering outside the tube station. I felt my heart palpitating, my pace quicken. Early morning before 9am, a long queue form outside the Citizen Advice Bureau (CAB), in which I wriggle my way through the narrow opening of the human queue who queue up for the CAB and the bus. It wasn’t the kind of neighbourhood I wanted to be caught in and certainly not one that I have to go to work to everyday.

I eventually took the job anyway to my relief that I occasionally only have to travel to the Willesden office few days a week, depending on my project. I also found myself having my team building away day at the Willesden Library in which Zadie Smith herself vowed to defend from the government’s austerity measure to close it down. I soon walk the streets of Willesden as if I was a part of it. Zadie Smith based her book NW in this neighbourhood. NW- the first two alphabets of the post code for North West London.

A bit modernistic and experimental in design, NW is a novel of five parts with three main protagonists. The book begins with a woman called Shar cheating a woman called Leah Hanwell out of £30 because she needs to take a taxi. Shar recognised that Leah goes to school with her. Leah is happily married to Michel. Michel wants to better their lives and have children. While Leah doesn’t. Her best friend Keisha Blake has moved up in her life.

This house makes her feel like a child. Cake ingredients and fancy rugs and throw cushions and upholstered chairs in chosen fabrics. Not a futon in sight. Overnight everyone has grown up. While she was becoming, everyone grew up and became. – page 58

The second part of the story was about Felix, who has been clean for 2 years and found his uptown girl and wanted to leave his old dodgy life behind. Poor Felix is swimming upstream to improve his life against a current that wants to pull him down. Felix thinks People can spend their whole life just dwelling. It’s time for the next level. Moving up in the game. While his former lover Anna, who is contented to status quo thinks “Life’s not a video game. There aren’t a certain number of points that send you to the next level. There isn’t actually any next level. The bad news is everybody dies at the end. Game over.”

It is interesting when I read the two contrasting views, how valid both of them are. I shudder to think that there are many people who are stuck in the rut who thinks that life is a game over and it isn’t worth a fight. I do find myself vacillates between the two paradigms sometimes.

Then comes the longest section with paragraphs with headers narrating the lives and friendships of Leah and Keisha (who is now Natalie), and trace Natalie rise to become a barrister, a mother and disappointingly as I read on, her downfall.

Natalie life was perfect. She is successful, married to Frank De Anglis, who has a rather refined upbringing, attended prestigious school (Some school you “attended’. Brayton you ‘went’ to), gave birth to two children and lives in the good part in London. What follows was quite puzzling for me, as Natalie became a different person and to allow herself to stoop so low. Natalie has everything and she doesn’t understand why she is unhappy.

Bus 98 to Willesden

I enjoyed the first part of the book very much. This is my first Zadie Smith and I thought her writing is raw and refreshing. This book consists of full length chapters, short essays, poems, chat texts writing forms. The writing feels meandering as the four characters stream of consciousness flows through. I like it in parts because of its searing honesty, I didn’t like it that much towards the end because of the aimless plot and too much of the future was left to the reader’s speculation. My take-away from the book is no matter how much one seeks to improve one’s life, there is always something from the past that holds us back. Some make it, some don’t, some make it only to destroy it with their own hands.

I am not sure if NW appeals to everyone. Readers who can relate to the local lingo or that part of London may find it entertaining; which in part, I am. While some who couldn’t quite follow the seemingly disparate stories and chapters may find it unsettling and disjointed.

The book is like one of those impressionist art pieces. I don’t quite know how to appreciate it but the more artistic people (or judges) may think this is a winner.

Rating: three and a half stars

There was an inevitability about the road towards each other which encouraged meandering along the route. – page 183

Hardback. Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin 2012Printed Length: 294 pagesSettingLondon, UKSourceReading Library copyFinished reading on: 3 May 2013, Friday.

Do read Claire Word by Word’s review on the book. I think she tells it more eloquently than I did.

Claire @Word by WordNW is a melancholic novel about four characters trying to escape their past and leaves the reader with few signs of hope for the future, or at least that future is left for us to imagine.

This is my first book by Zadie Smith, so I am going to do an introduction about her. I have her earlier novels on my shelf and hope to get to them one day.

Which one of her earlier novels did you like?

About the writer:

zadie smith

Zadie Smith (born on 25 October 1975) is a British novelist, essayist and short story writer.

As of 2012, she has published four novels, all of which have received substantial critical praise. In 2003, she was included on Granta’s list of 20 best young authors, and was also included in the 2013 list. She joined New York University’s Creative Writing Program as a tenured professor on September 1, 2010. Smith has won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006 and her novel White Teeth was included in Time magazine’s TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005 list.

Zadie Smith was born as Sadie Smith in the northwest London borough of Brent – a largely working-class area – to a Jamaican mother, Yvonne Bailey, and a British father, Harvey Smith. As a child she was fond of tap dancing; as a teenager she considered a career as an actress in musical theatre; and as a university student she earned money as a jazz singer and wanted to become a journalist.

Smith attended the local state schools, Malorees Junior School and Hampstead Comprehensive School, and King’s College, Cambridge University where she studied English literature.

Her novel, On Beauty, won the 2006 Orange Prize for fiction.

Smith met Nick Laird at Cambridge University. They married in 2004 in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. Smith dedicated On Beauty to “my dear Laird”. They have a daughter (Kit; born 2009), and are currently expecting their second child in the spring of 2013.


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


14 thoughts on “NW by Zadie Smith

  1. I just got my copy of NW a few days ago and it is one of the titles among Women’s Prize books that I am more interested to read. Truth be told, based on what I know about this book (I have not read any Zadie Smith previously either) and based on what I picked up from light browsing, I would come to the same conclusions – that this novel might not be for everyone and that this novel might be a bit “all over the place” plot wise. And just as you point out, I was also a bit apprehensive whether prior knowledge on London might be a factor (I have never even been to London, not to talk about living there!) But if well written, I do tend to enjoy such pieces, so I am hoping for the best 🙂 Thanks for the review!

    Posted by Riv @ Bookish Realm | May 4, 2013, 11:14 am
    • Riv,
      I don’t think it matters if you have prior knowledge of London or not. But having it does help! 😉
      It is well written and quirky. Perhaps Quirky is the word that I used to describe this book! All the best.

      Posted by JoV | May 6, 2013, 7:36 am
  2. Thanks for the link to my review Jo and I’m glad you persevered and read NW. I have quite an attachment to the area, naturally when living there, you get to find it’s gems and not just the impact of first impressions travelling through it. It’s a community of contrasts, it’s occupants crossing the strata of classes and walks of life. Around the time the book was released I remember reading an article where they interviewed people who live there now and it was such a fun, vibrant piece, some new, some old, from all kinds of backgrounds, the one who’d been there the longest said it had changed a lot, though I think its the communities that change more than the place itself. Thought-provoking indeed! Great review Jo.

    Posted by Claire 'Word by Word' | May 4, 2013, 12:12 pm
    • Claire,
      Thanks for a heartwarming comment. I can imagine it being a nice place to live. If I choose a place to live in the UK, I tend to go for places where there is a mix of local and migrant communities. It has variety and also I could find specialty food that I crave. 😉
      I am still thinking about Natalie and wonder if it is possible for someone to self destruct herself to that extent…..

      Posted by JoV | May 6, 2013, 7:39 am
  3. I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Zadie Smith, although I haven’t read this one yet. I’m glad you liked it – you should try White Teeth.

    Posted by Sam (Tiny Library) | May 4, 2013, 2:56 pm
    • Sam,
      I will now try White Teeth with renewed vigour! I tried once before and abandoned it after 10 pages. I look forward to it again. I own the White Teeth, Autograph Man and yesterday I bought “On Beauty”. 🙂

      Posted by JoV | May 6, 2013, 7:42 am
  4. White Teeth is wonderful – one of my all time favourites – but I haven’t read anything else by Zadie Smith, though I’ve always meant to. This sounds very promising though so maybe I will pick it up soon. Glad to hear you enjoyed it!

    Posted by Marie | May 4, 2013, 3:10 pm
  5. I need to write White Teeth. I didn’t love everything about NW, but I thought the writing was exceptionally strong, and it made me want to read more things by this author. Plus her essays in Changing My Mind were wonderful.

    Posted by Jenny | May 4, 2013, 7:42 pm
    • Jenny,
      I need to read White Teeth too! Everyone kept saying how great it is but did you know it is On Beauty that won her the Orange Prize? I agree her writing is exceptional.

      Posted by JoV | May 6, 2013, 7:44 am
  6. I once started reading a Zadie Smith book and soon discovered that it’s not a book I can read when distracted, I hope to read one of her books soon.

    Posted by Athira | May 5, 2013, 9:04 pm
    • Athira,
      Same here Aths. I read White Teeth and had to give up after 10 pages. I was distracted but you can’t with Zadie Smith.
      I look forward to hear your thoughts on your first Zadie Smith book!

      Posted by JoV | May 6, 2013, 7:45 am


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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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