For the longest time I couldn’t figure out what NW meant. It was only in the context of seeing NW in relation to what it wasn’t that I realized what it stood for, it wasn’t East London, it was North West London. (So specific. But I can only imagine a big city like London can get even more specific.) This is also how I figured out how much I loved Zadie Smith’s NW- I was able to see exactly what it wasn’t. I saw that it wasn’t what Michiko Kakutani called “Zadie Smith’s clunky new novel” in the New York Times or what Adam Mars-Jones describes as “a well fitted-out yacht” “waiting for a breeze that never comes” in the Guardian. Comparing the reality of NW to these essays about NW clarified that Smith’s book was very, very good, better than WHITE TEETH. Zadie seems to have succeeded in pulling one over- she’s written such a deceptively good book it takes a while to realize the power, skill, and originality of what you’ve just read, and it seems some people get too angry and distracted by what the book makes them feel that they never do. Perhaps the calm, precise, control with which Smith writes in the face of the emotional turmoil of her characters rankles these readers.
Leah Hanwell and Natalie Blake are the focus of this book, and their friendship and selves become tantamount to their little section of London. Contrary to Mars-Jones’ assertion that “There’s nothing limited about female friendship as a subject, as long as you have confidence in it,” Smith shows that confidence isn’t the only thing that’s interesting in friendship. Leah and Natalie falter, their friendship fades and brightens, and still, Smith bravely writes about them. Smith isn’t worried about the fact that her characters are women, or that the friendship she describes has ups and downs. She is serene in writing a reality, the specific reality of these two women and the way their lives criss-cross each other. This is a brave act only because people like Mars-Jones discount it, and very obviously favor the section about a man “making good.” Smith makes writing about women seem mundane and acceptable, encouraged even, which sounds boring but it’s not; because she is such a good writer, because her characters are muddled and confused and interesting, and because writing about women in literary fiction is not always lauded.
I hadn’t read On Beauty and didn’t think of myself as urgently needing to read NW until I read the excerpt in The New Yorker. It felt different than the other fiction I’ve been reading lately, and it was exciting to like something so much that was so different, something that there was more of. Reading NW, I felt right away that Smith had found a way to meld extremely readable, commercial, emotional fiction with experimental fiction. This shiny new car feeling combined with the connection I felt with her main characters, with the forthrightness and bravery of their sexuality and inner lives, lit up NW.
nw3 , my favourite place in london.
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