Zadie Smith’s latest book, NW, which has recently been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, or ex-Orange Prize, is both fascinating, and complex. NW, standing for the postcode of North-West London is a mix of semi-overlapping stories told in a variety of experimental styles.
All of the characters in the book grew up around the same estate in the Willesden area of London, but of the four principal characters, it is the women, Natalie and Leah that feature most prominently. The fragments of the novel centered on the men seem to be slightly bolted-on.
In terms of plot, there isn’t really much of one to speak of. The sections weave in and out of each other, overlapping at key intervals. However, a couple of weeks after finishing the book the most memorable section to me is about a guy selling a car. The strange thing is that the scene where that event takes place is one small, and fairly irrelevant section in the context of the novel as a whole. I’m not really sure what that tells you.
I don’t want to give the impression that I felt NW was a bad book. On the contrary, it is really excellently written. One section is made up entirely of short numbered paragraphs, and yet they manage to convey almost the entire course of a person’s life. It is incredible how subtly powerful that section is, and it could even stand independently of the book. Overall NW is so difficult to grasp that it is hard to know what exactly to make of it.