NW by Zadie Smith

NW cover

I finished this book more than a week ago, but this is the first time I’ve been able to make myself sit down and write a review. The problem isn’t that I’ve been trying to decide what I want to talk about, the problem is that I don’t really have much to say about this book at all.

The story is divided into four mini-arcs, all taking place in the same neighborhood in northwest London. We start with Leah, a white woman (the neighborhood is predominately black, and mostly Caribbean). Her section shows us several days in her life – going to work, interacting with her husband, visiting her friends, etc. Then at the end of her section, she hears about some guy being stabbed in the street. The next section is from the guy’s perspective and takes place the day he was killed. Then we move on to the third section, which is about Leah’s friend Natalie and provides us with background information on the girls’ friendship. Then in the last section, Natalie meets up with some guy she went to school with and they wander around the neighborhood. And then the book ends.

It’s Zadie Smith, so the writing is incredible. Everything is very, very subtle, so that you often have to read conversations several times before you understand the subtext of what’s being said. The characters are all really good – all of them are sympathetic and none of them are good, and they are all very, very real – and Smith creates a near-flawless portrait of a small isolated community.

The problem is that, lovely as the writing is, the fact remains that nothing fucking happens. We just watch four people dick around and be miserable for a while, and then the book stops. Nothing else. Normally, I wouldn’t have minded this. I said in my review of Anna Gavalda’s Hunting and Gathering that a plot is not necessary for a book to be good, and I stand by that. NW is another example of a book that’s character-driven rather than plot-driven, but the problem here is that we’re not driving anywhere, we’re just treading water. Again, I might have been able to forgive this, but the four characters remained only tenuously connected, and the events that occur during their sections having no real effect on the outcome of the story. I wanted this to end like A Prayer for Owen Meany, where every single character and event throughout the book turns out to be an important factor in the climax, and everything fits together neatly. That doesn’t happen here, and it’s disappointing, and ultimately makes the book not really worth the effort of reading it.

Verdict: three out of five stars

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