On the chopping block was Zadie Smith’s NW . I think I can probably cut right to it and say that not many of us enjoyed the book. Set in North West London, Smith’s novel follows four thirty-somethings as they navigate their lives in the modern-day capital. The main characters (Leah, Keisha/Natalie, Nathan and Felix) all come from the same area, a fictitious neighbourhood named “Caldwell”. Incorporating aspects of Kilburn, Kensal Rise and Willesden, I think Caldwell was our first point of debate. Although I believe we all agreed that NW’s setting was realistic, there were split opinions surrounding how similar Caldwell was to the London we all live in (South London). And while a few of us thought that Smith’s London was very relatable, it was simultaneously trite – the novel could have taken place in Brooklyn/Salford/Tenderloin just as easily.
I’m pretty sure we all reached an agreement on the structure of NW though; I don’t think that anyone was particularly taken with it. I believe that everyone struggled with Smith’s fluctuating focus and a couple of us had even given up with the book. This was also reflected in the fact that Felix was voted our favourite character. The chapter that follows him as he bargains for a second-hand car and visits an ex-girlfriend is perhaps the most fluid and easy to read. This differs drastically from the blocky compartmentalised notes that Natalie/Keisha’s narrative is built from.
We spent a large part of the meeting comparing Natalie/Keisha and Leah. NW seems to revolve around the relationship between these two characters, yet neither were portrayed in the nicest light. Perhaps this was Smith’s intention, yet Keisha/Natalie and Leah were seen to be quite outlandish at times. This was a point of contention, as some book clubbers argued that the actions each took against their husbands were far-fetched, while others thought that their behaviour was understandable. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Flo’s death. It seemed like the dog’s passing (or could we even call it murder?) was a pretty odd addition to the plot. It basically played no part in the development of the story at all, it just seemed to be an added flourish and a macabre one at that. All in all, NW scored a modest 3.6/10.
Adam, Carnegie Library Reading Group