Friday, November 09, 2012

'NW' by Zadie Smith

9 November 2012

Zadie Smith burst onto the literary scene in 2000 with her remarkable debut novel, ‘White Teeth’ – a brilliant comic tale of modern multicultural Britain. Her latest novel, ‘NW’ (which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book read by Karen Bryson and Don Gilet), is a more serious affair. It’s a fascinating book which tells of the lives of two thirty-something women who grew up together on an estate in North West London. The first section focuses on Leah Hanwell, her family and friends in the present day – gradually filling in her backstory through flashback and reminiscence. The writing is teasingly impressionistic, giving us all the pieces of Leah’s life but leaving the reader to complete the jigsaw. At first this style felt difficult to follow and I was frustrated by the slow progress of what I had assumed was to be the main plot. But after a while you learn to let the stream of consciousness flow over you and the richness of the beautifully written prose builds a wonderfully rounded picture. The second half of the book gives us the life story of Leah’s childhood friend Keisha Blake, in linear, chronological order through a rapid series of nearly 200 very short chapters. This section felt easier and more enjoyable to read and the inevitable convergence of Leah and Keisha’s stories had a satisfying feel. Buried almost unseen in the middle of the stories of these two women there is a small, sad murder mystery that pulls the various strands of the novel together. ‘NW’ is an epic London novel with a Dickensian feel – a ‘Bleak House’ for the 21st century, perhaps.



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