Review: NW by Zadie Smith

Purchase from Angus and Robertson Bookworld

“In poor areas people steal your phone. In rich areas people steal your pension.” (Smith 2012, p. 134)

Zadie Smith’s NW is urban fiction at its best. Smith explores a dark world of poverty in one of the worlds’ most affluent cities, London. NW is urban realism. Smith does not sugar-coat and she does not hold back with images of drug abuse, sex, abortion, and racial discrimination.

The characters are indecisive and there is no real progression in their development. But they are confident in the choices they make, whether they turn out to be the best decision or not. The novel is real and raw in this sense. People make choices, they do things, but what they choose or do does not necessarily bring them to the point they wish to be at. More often than not they are still at the same point they started at, only showing minor differences.

That is exactly what NW is. It is not a story about possibility; it is a story about reality.

Smith writes what she knows. She grew up in North-West London, or NW as she so aptly calls her exquisite novel. But Smith does not only write what she knows, she writes what the world needs to know. She brings honesty, shinning a light on the things society prefers to keep hidden. She forces us to see the horror of our own making, our most shameful moments. She forces us to think about difficult and controversial matters.

But NW is not simply an outspoken novel reflecting poorly on society, it is so much more than that. Smith shows an optimism hidden beneath layers of inequality.

NW is reminiscent of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and, in my opinion, could be just as influential in changing how people think about urban issues.

Smith does not sweep anything under the rug unlike many popular authors. There is no looking over something and not really seeing it with Smith. She rams stereotypes down your throat and then subtly reveals their falseness. Reading NW is like being on a rollercoaster ride of frustrating indecision and overwhelmingly dark images. It is as reality is, atypical.

The four sections of the novel do not fit together in a nice neat parcel, just as the four characters do not fit together. The change in style and tempo and the shifts in perspective and consciousness are unsettling and slightly frustrating to read. But this is the point. People are different and do not always fit together. These are also the people who can have the greatest impact on our lives.

“The face is familiar. Leah has seen this face many times in these streets. A peculiarity of London villages: faces without names.” (Smith 2012, p. 6)

This novel is radical. Smith is passionate. NW is an urban masterpiece that has the power to change the way people think about society. This novel will seem like wonderfully imaginative urban writing to those blind to reality, but it will share truths for those willing to listen.

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