Nov 27, 2012

NW by Zadie Smith

NW by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith’s NW is titled after the postcode for North West London, the area of the city where the story is set. The novel follows four characters – Leah, Natalie, Felix, and Nathan – who grew up in the same council estate. Now in their adulthood, they have achieved varying degrees of success. Natalie is a thriving upper middle class lawyer; her best friend Leah, while not as wealthy, works for a non-profit and lives comfortably; Felix is just getting his life back on track after some bad experiences with drugs; and Nathan, once a bright and promising student, is not doing well at all.

NW is divided into four sections, each mostly following one of the characters. This is a very rich novel, and I could approach it from a variety of angles. I could talk, for example, about the narrative style, which is far more experimental than in Zadie Smith’s previous work – but not, I think, in a way that makes it inaccessible. But plenty has been written about Smith’s style already, so instead I’ll focus on the aspect of NW that interested me the most: how the different sections subtly comment on one another, how they create thematic tension, and how they subtly critique the idea that we live in a meritocracy.

NW is very much about the narratives we use to explain social mobility, and also to explain away its absence. “Host”, a section that reads like a miniature bildungsroman focused on Natalie, show us not only how she became successful, but also the personal myths she has built to explain her success to herself. There’s no doubt that Natalie is intelligent and hardworking, but the point is that so are the other characters, and therefore there’s no way these personal qualities tell us the whole story. There’s also the hidden factor whose acknowledgement has such deep social and political implications: blind chance; the fact that we are not in control.

A sentence Natalie hears on the radio one day becomes a sort of mantra she repeats to herself: “I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me”. And towards the end of the novel, she and Nathan have the following exchange:
‘I don’t believe in luck.’
‘You should. It rules the world.’
Natalie desperately wants to believe she’s fully in control – that’s the only way she can make sense not only of what happened to her, but of what happened, or failed to happen, to all the people she knew when she was young. NW ends with an even more telling exchange, this time between Natalie and Leah:
‘I just don’t understand why I have this life,’ she said quietly.
‘You, me, all of us. Why that girl and not us. Why that poor bastard on Albert Road. It doesn’t make sense to me.’
Natalie frowned and folded her arms across her body. She had expected a more difficult question.
‘Because we worked harder,’ she said, laying her head on the back of the bench to consider the wide-open sky. ‘We were smarter and we knew we didn’t want to end up begging on other people’s doorsteps. We wanted to get out. People like Bogle – they didn’t want it enough. I’m sorry if you find that answer ugly, Lee, but it’s the truth. This is one of those things you learn in a courtroom: people generally get what they deserve.’
But of course that after getting to know Felix, the “poor bastard on Albert Road”, we can’t take this explanation at face value. This is why I found Felix’s section so absolutely central to this novel: it’s what makes it come together thematically, and it’s what exposes the flaws in Natalie’s comforting self-mythologizing. We see exactly what caused Felix to lose his life, and we realise that telling yourselves that we deserve all the good that’s come to us (and that, by extension, others deserve the bad that’s come to them) is nothing but a form of self-protection. It allows us not only to keep guilt about inequality at bay, but also to believe we’re safe from future misfortune – after all, we’re smart and work hard. What else does it take?

Natalie’s refrain, “I am the sole author”, put me in mind of this post by John Green, “I didn’t build that”, which concludes as follows:
Over the years, I’ve encountered a few successful people who believe they did it all themselves and achieved success because they are just better than their fellow human beings. Some were bankers; some were writers; some were lawyers. Some male, some female. Some rich, some not. Some were born into privilege, some weren’t. I guess they’re a pretty diverse crowd. They only have one thing in common, really: They’re all assholes.
I generally agree with the sentiment expressed here, but it is very interesting how getting deep inside Natalie’s mind gives us the chance to see that more than just being an asshole, she’s someone who desperately wants to cling to a reason why. She wants absolute moral certainty; she wants method and order; she wants something, anything, that will allow her to believe she’s not the beneficiary of an unfair social system. (Even if, as a woman of colour, she’s also its victim in many ways – intersectionality is all over this novel.)

Please allow me another tangent, which will hopefully make sense by the time I finish this post. The other day my partner and I watched a documentary called “EdifĂ­cio Master” by Brazilian filmmaker Eduardo Coutinho. The documentary was filmed in an enormous low-rent building in Rio de Janeiro, a building with 12 stories and hundreds of apartments inhabited by lower middle class families. One of Coutinho’s interviewees was an elderly lady who had immigrated to Brazil as a young woman from Galicia, a region in Northern Spain that was assailed by deep poverty in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries. The lady told the interviewers a little bit about her life, and then announced that she didn’t believe in the concept of poverty. After a lifetime of struggling to lift herself and her family above the poverty line, she had come to believe that what was generally known as poverty was in fact only laziness: anyone who had less than her family did had simply not worked hard enough.

I found this interview both extremely saddening and very illuminating. The interesting thing about the documentary is that the people whose lives it showed would fit the definition of poverty in many parts of the world, but in a city marked by such deep social inequalities, they had an underclass to compare themselves favourably to. What this also means is that they were keenly aware that their lives could become much worse – their financial situations were still precarious, so a single misfortune could propel them into the levels of poverty experienced by the inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. This lady knew this, but she made herself feel safe by clinging to the belief that her and her family’s hard work would always protect them from such a fate. The belief that “people generally get what they deserve” allowed her peace of mind, and saved her from a life of constant anguish.

To return to John Green’s quote, I find such Ayn Rand-esque politics repulsive and am generally not a fan of the smugness and complete lack of empathy behind them. But at the same time, if we want to fight these ideas it’s important to understand their psychological appeal, especially for people who were not born into privilege or whose lives are still so precarious – people we’d perhaps expect would be deeply aware of how far from a meritocracy the world really is.

Zadie Smith’s portrayal of Natalie in NW allowed me such understanding. By the end of the novel I was more sad for her than horrified, which is an excellent example of what great fiction can do.

They read it too: Bermudaonion’s Weblog, Devourer of Books, Asylum, Booked All Week

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. You got a lot more out of this book than I did. I listened to the audio version (which was narrated well) but can't help but wonder if I would have understood it better in print.

  2. This is a really wonderful review of a not-so-easy book. I tried to read it, but just couldn't find my way. I recently heard Zadie Smith on the radio, and was so taken with her that I wanted to try NW again, and your writeup makes me want to even more. Thanks. The radio link is here:

  3. I can generally believe that people get what they deserve, but the reality is a lot more complicated than that. It's not luck, or ingenuity, but many factors that blend into a seamless mass that both complicate some lives, and enrich others. What you have said here makes such an impact on me that I feel that I must read this book. Knowing beforehand that it's a slightly difficult read doesn't intimidate me because you have given me a basis for understanding the basic meat and potatoes of this one. Excellent review. Razor sharp and exquisitely intelligent. Thank you for this.

  4. Oh wow. Zadie Smith intimidates the heck out of me, but I heard an interview with her about this book and was so so drawn in...but not enough to conquer my fear that trying to read it would further confirm my feelings of inadequacy. (No need for kicking here--I'm not saying I *am* stupid or inadequate, I'm just saying I feel that way.) Anyway, now that I've read your thoughts I am so frickin' tempted to give it a go. I have to admit that as I started reading your review, I thought, "Oh my god, I know some people whom need this book shoved into their hands!" But the thing is despite the fact that I absolutely do not accept that idea that people get what they deserve, neither for good nor for ill, I do have a very strong desire in me to wish like fucking hell that life could be fair. And I wonder if there aren't moments when that extreme desire doesn't taint my outlook on life.

  5. Like Debi, I heard an interview with Zadie Smith about this book which piqued my interest (I have enjoyed her work but haven't exactly loved it), on the Guardian Books podcast IIRC. Your thoughts on it have nudged it upwards yet again. I especially enjoyed your tangent-ing; when things like that coallesce and bring another layer of meaning to reading fiction, I get all tingly.

  6. I like what you say here about self-protection. It seems to me that attitude Natalie expresses comes out of a desire to feel she has have control over her circumstances. People who've managed to become a little less poor than others around them might like to think they did it for themselves because that makes them feel safe, like they won't just lose what they have because of bad luck.

    It may sound weird, but it makes me think of dialogue around weight loss. People who've lost a lot of weight (or never gained a lot of weight) seem to think that because they can, anyone can. But they don't know what metabolic or other health issues keeping someone from getting thin. Two people can do the same things and end up at different weights, just as people can work equally hard and end up achieving different levels of "success."

  7. I have an audio review copy of NW, but am still trying to muster the enthusiasm to begin...

  8. I've never read a Zadie Smith novel can you believe it? I think if I did I'd probably start with her first book, though.

  9. You are probably one of two or three bloggers whose long posts I can actually get through. I love the way you word things.

    I am embarrassed to admit, though, I had to look up what bildungsroman meant. I need to take some kind of literary class, I think. I am always having to look up these type of terms and I feel like I should know them.

    I have not read Zadie Smith before but she is one of those I've been meaning to get to.

  10. Wonderful review, Ana. I've read a bit of this book, maybe in The New Yorker, and was completely drawn into it. I have it on hold at the library.

  11. Kathy: Like I told you in my comment, I can well imagine feeling lost if I'd listened to the audio. I guess my lack of practice with audio books could be a factor here, but for me it's much easier to concentrate on a dense text if I'm reading than if I'm listening.

    Nan: Thank you so much for the link! I'll be sure to listen. I've read a couple of interview with her over the years and she's just so amazingly smart.

    Zibilee: Yes, it's never just one thing, though I think chance does play a role. Not to say that people's personal qualities like smarts and hard work have no bearing in what happens to them, but... it's so much more complicated than that. So many incredibly talented and intelligent people never "make it big" for a number of reasons.

    Debi: One of the things I appreciated the most about this book is that it let me see what it's very human to slip into these thought patterns. I associate these ideas with smug, self-congratulatory people - assholes, like John Green put it - but... it's more complicated than that. The idea of a fair world is a very powerful thing, so of course all of us are going to be drawn to it sometimes, even if rationally we reject it.

    Buried in Print: I love it when a book allows me to draw links between things I've encountered here and there and that made an impression. And I'll be sure to look for that interview.

    Teresa: Your comparison makes perfect sense to me. And another thing this book touches on that I didn't get to talk about is the cost of defining "success" so narrowly. We currently only recognise one very specific life path as worthy of praise. Owen Jones addresses this in his book about class in the UK, and I thought it was a powerful idea.

    JoAnn: I think it's well worth reading, but maybe take BermudaOnion's comments about the audio into account.

    Tasha: I think my favourite so far is On Beauty, but I really enjoyed them all.

    Becca: Aw, thank you so much! That really made me smile :) And no reason to be embarrassed at all! I try to link to definitions when I use specialised terms like that exactly because not everyone is an English major, but this time it slipped my mind.

    Gavin: Thank you! I really think you'll enjoy it.

  12. Going purely on personal experience, I think you can achieve a lot simply by working hard towards a goal, but the importance of luck, opportunity or being in the right place at the right time cannot be ignored... Really it's a mixture of the two that led to my own successes.

    Great review, Nymeth. You make the book sound approachable, but having read something by Zadie Smith already I imagine that it's quite heavy. I wonder if I would be able to appreciate it as much as you did.

    I have White Teeth by her next on my Zadie Smith list - have you read that?

  13. While I have no problem disregarding the notion that people get what they deserve (that's just not part of my self-deception), I do have a hard time letting go of the idea that "everyone can make it if they try." Like the lady in Brazil, I have a strong belief in hard work. I recognize that equating poverty with laziness is bad bad bad, but it's so ingrained in me. Just thoughts that came to mind while reading. :)

  14. Joanna: Yes, I have - I really, really liked it. Definitely read it sometime soon!

    Trisha: Well, they don't call it "the American Dream" for nothing :P I definitely want to live in a world where that's true, but I don't think we're there yet, you know? For example, in the book Natalie changes her name from "Keisha" to something that is clearly more middle-class sounding (and also with no immediate race connotations). We also see her befriending a group of well-off peers who then bring her with their fold and make her one of them, and those contacts get her a well-paid job later on. More than her hard work, it's the little things that conquer class barriers that make the biggest difference in her life.

  15. Maybe somebody bought this after your review...

  16. I really like your review. I finished Jane Eyre a couple of days ago, and this review immediately made me think back to the part where Jane chides Hannah for closing the door to her: "you ought not to consider poverty a crime."

  17. Jodie: Excited to hear what you think. There's so much about this novel that I didn't get into at all, and I bet you'd have awesome things to say about any of those angles (the friendship between Natalie and Leah, race and gender and intersectionality, the class dynamics, etc.)

    Claudia: That's a great moment. And yet today so many people still do.

  18. This seems like a companion to the book I read earlier this year - Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Granted, that was a non-fiction book about people in poverty, but even there, people believed that they deserved better than the other people around them. I don't know that it's such a horrible idea when you think about it, really - I think we all desperately need to believe that we are in control of our fates, and that if we just try harder, be smarter, and do better than other people, then we'll be rewarded for it. But the flip side of that coin, of course, is that we have to believe that other people do NOT do the same things that we do. And that can become so very dangerous and make us so much less empathetic to other people.

  19. Aarti, I couldn't agree more. This book really made me think about how human it is to think that way, and I appreciate that so much. On a side note, I absolutely have to read Behind the Beautiful Forevers!


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