What I’m Reading: Zadie Smith – NW

(Due to a combination of my flu lasting longer than expected, a week’s vacation and plain laziness this blog has been rather quiet recently. Hopefully I’ll be posting more frequently again from now on, though.)

Zadie Smith’s debut novel White Teeth has been part of my TBR pile (actually, it’s more a TBR mountain range) for quite a while now, but I never got around to reading it. I’m going to have to dig it out though, because finishing her latest left me with the urge to read more of her work. NW – as it is called after the London District where most of it takes place – grips readers right from the start – not by drawing them in with its plot, but by assaulting them with a burst of almost raw sensory data, by pouncing them with the sheer, overwhelming wealth of sights, sounds, smells of North West London, by sinking its claws into  them and never letting go until the end.

NW is a novel in parts, four to be precise, each with a different protagonist and each told in a quite distinctive voice. It’s mostly the story of Keisha, though, not only because her part (the third) is by far the longest but because the others are all told in relation to her story, making her the central figure of the novel – or the central human figure at least, as it might be argued that NW is mostly a novel about place and about people only insofar as they are inhabitants of that place. But of course people shape a place and in turn are shaped by it, and this novel is very conscious of that, down to the literary devices it employs.

One chapter presents an excerpt from Google Maps, plain directions that describe the way from A to B in an orderly, structured fashioned. The chapter immediately following gives us the exactly same route as it is experienced (on ground level, so to speak) – a jumble of sensory impressions, of thought fragments and unrelated bits of sentences, all the messy chaos that is a busy street in a big city on any given day. Unlike most other novels promising to give us a slice of life, Zadie Smith does not just boast of it, only to then give us the same detached, bland and politely restrained prose most so-called literary fiction never gets beyond, but uses her writing to indeed cut a generous slice out of life in London today and to drop it on our plate bleeding, still warm and twitching.

But that does not mean that NW is lacking in structure or trying to obfuscate its status as a work of literature. While Zadie Smith does aim for (and successfully achieves) a sense of almost physical directness, of vie brut, with her writing, she uses quite an array of literary devices to achieve that effect and never attempts to camouflage their use in favour of a pretended immediacy. The most prominent technique in the novel’s first part (which overall is probably my favourite of the four) is that of stream of consciousness – which is a very traditional device, already used by (among others) Joyce and Döblin to capture the fragmentation and disjointedness of modern urban life, but also one that never quite made it into the mainstream, that readers apparently never could get quite accustomed to. It is on the one hand a highly artificial technique that requires quite some skill on part of the author to handle successfully as well as an intellectual effort on part of the reader to decipher, but on the other hand this refined technique serves to give as close a glimpse of the raw workings of the human mind as is possible; and this ambiguity seems to me almost emblematic of NW as a whole.

On a sidenote, there are some interesting comparisons to be drawn between NW and the German novel Söhne und Planeten that I read just a few weks before Smith’s novel. Both consist of four interconnected, but independent parts, but the way they shape that interconnectedness is very different in each of the two – where Söhne und Planeten adds each novella like a layer, NW places them in a constellation to each other.The former makes for a much denser web of relations and connections, the latter for greater individuality and variety of the parts, with NW’s sections being far more distinctive in tone and technique than the novellas that form Söhne und Planeten.

At times, I could not help the feeling that I was missing out on things like cultural connotations and other nuances for not being British (or even not being a Londoner), but I suppose that is the inevitable price you pay for enjoying a work that so vividly and densely evokes a sense of place like NW does. Like other modernist novels in whose tradition Zadie Smith firmly places herself here,  the apparent restriction to the merely regional also deepens their symbolic significance, and while NW isn’t Ulysses or Berlin Alexanderplatz it constantly plays with and around themes and motifs of self and identity, on a cultural, local and personal level.


  1. Smith ‘uses her writing to indeed cut a generous slice out of life in London today and to drop it on our plate bleeding, still warm and twitching’… One of the best turns of phrase I’ve ever come across in a book blog; well done, Heloise! I was interested to see this review because, being a Londoner by residence if not by birth, I’ve been wondering whether or not to read NW. Thanks to your thoughts on the book, I think I might well have to give it a go. I’m usually a bit wary about modernist or quirkily-structured novels, but I really enjoyed On Beauty when I read that a few years ago and so at least I know that I ‘get on’ with Smith’s style.

    Incidentally, I’m immensely impressed that you read German novels in the original (although you may, of course, actually be German in which case it’s only to be expected) 🙂 I’ve had a quick look at your LibraryThing catalogue and you have an intriguing selection of books, so I shall be watching your future posts with great interest.

  2. Hehe, thank you – and I happen indeed to be German, so reading books in that language is not much of an achievement in my case.

    I’m glad you liked the post, and might actually have been blushing a bit at your praise. Thank you for your interest in my blog – it’s rather eclectic, I’m afraid, and comes nowhere near the thoughtful and extensive analysis you offer in your own, but I would be happy if you should find a thing or two here to interest you.

    As far as I can tell, opinions on NW seem to be quite divided, but several bloggers whose opinion I trust liked it, so I gave it a shot myself and definitely did not regret it. The modernism is actually comparatively mild, and the novel is nowhere as dense as Ulysses or Berlin Alexanderplatz and does not require the reader to work for their enjoyment as hardcore modernist novels often do (and which I personally do not consider a bad thing at all, but tastes of course do differ).

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