NW (Zadie Smith)

"There is a connection between boredom and the desire for chaos."

"There is a connection between boredom and the desire for chaos."

United Kingdom / 2012

NW is my third Zadie Smith novel. I read White Teeth in August, then On Beauty in October. I've been told by many that NW is her best work. I have to disagree. I still think White Teeth is the best of the three. At it's core, NW is the story of a place: Northwest London. More specifically, some projects called Caldwell and the four residents who come in and out of age there, trying to navigate the pitfalls of adulthood. Some leave the projects and feel guilty, some stay and feel the same way.


Not much happens in this book. Smith dedicates most of the novel to explaining what "type" of person each character is. These characters are explained to death, and it becomes painfully obvious that Smith has a very specific idea of who she wants these people to be. Just like in On Beauty, these otherwise interesting characters become vessels for typecast ideologies. There's no breathing room. They're boxed in, predictable. I wish Smith would just let these otherwise lovely characters BE. Not think and overthink but just be.

This book's greatest strength is its authentic and nuanced portrayal of modern London. Smith built this fantastic world that makes you feel transported. You can hear the accents, smell the smells, and imagine the passing pedestrians and trains on the page. What she's accomplished here is really fantastic. Another great strength is its take on adulthood: how we technically are "adults" but don't really feel that way. And how it can be difficult to assume these prescribed roles of wife, mother, etc, when we don't really feel too whole ourselves. After I finished NW, I did what I always do after finishing a book: read the reviews on GoodReads. One review stood out to me: Zadie Smith is great locally, but not globally. I thought, "Ding ding ding!" On the level of sentences, intelligence, and metaphor, her work is astounding. That's why I couldn't put this book down even though parts of it annoyed me. But when you stick it all together, it doesn't quite work super well. Even though it's not perfect, it's still worth a read. 3.5/5.