Everyone was excited about one of the highlights of 2012’s summer publishing programme, Zadie Smith’s first novel in 7 years. Then a veritable mixed-bag of reviews arrived suggesting a potential marmite novel, with lots to discuss.
I certainly went through a whole gamut of readerly reaction as I made my way through NW’s pages. From “how fantastic is this” in section 1 to “how boring” at the mid-point of section 2. Forced myself to proceed and found myself in despair at the injustice of the world by the end of the same section. Section 3 left me bemused and disengaged (very unfortunate this, as it’s the longest section of the book). Disbelieving too at the plot twist which enables section 4, without which some of the ends could not be neatly tied in section 5.
The problem is that Smith is trying too hard. 4 sections and 4 main protagonists, each representing a tranche of contemporary society in NW London, from the self-made to the homeless Their stories interlock though it’s not certain exactly how until the final section. This is neatly done. What distanced me is that the author couldn’t decide how to tell the story. I don’t want to use the work experimenting, because Smith is more experienced than that, but it felt like an unsucessful experiment in parts – particularly section 3, the life story of Keisha/Natalie, told in 185 episodic incidents of varying length, interwoven with off-page cultural references aplenty. Then there’s the modernist presentations: content delivered as lists, email dialogues, a dinner menu in the format of a tree.
As with marmite, there are those who will love this – shall we call it playfulness? – and those who will not. Put me in the latter camp – I find it tricksy and attention-seeking. While literary fiction is supposed to make you aware of the way in which it is written, I do not appreciate when style interferes with my emotional engagement in the story. I don’t have to like the characters, and there are plenty in these pages I find unsympathetic but I do have to feel as though I am there and involved. This was the case during part 1, in which both main characters came fully to life in a drama where Leah falls victim to a scam while in the comfort of her own home. Finely observed detail with true-to-life dialogue. The same standard in section 2 during Felix’s farewell scene to Annie. Real people complicating matters as only real people can.
Then came section 3 …. and nothing really grabbed me after that.
How to score such a patchy read? Section by section to give an average is the only way I can go. Section 1 = 5 stars Section 2 = 3 stars Section 3 = 2 stars Section 4 = 3 stars Section 5 (which ends the novel as it starts with a visit to Leah – a structural trick I like) 3 stars.