Friday, March 15, 2013

Contemporary Fiction: NW by Zadie Smith

This week's selection came from the good people at BookPeople. Zadie Smith visited the store upon the release of her latest novel, NW, and after discovering it was available at the school library, I decided to try it out. Plus, there is something about reading a book that takes place in modern-day England and therefore paints a picture that is incredibly different from the England I got used to reading about in my 19th century door stops (Charles Dickens, I am looking in your direction).

The Situation: Leah, Natalie, Felix, and Nathan are from Caldwell, a neighborhood in London. Though all four of them grew up there around roughly the same time, the four lives went in four different directions. Even Leah and Natalie differ greatly from each other, despite being best friends for most of their lives. While Leah is content with it just being her and her husband in their apartment, Natalie is constantly striving to advance her career, and is attempting to raise the perfect family with her husband and two kids while holding down an impressive job at the same time. Nathan has become a well-known figure on the streets, and Felix is attempting to start his life over again, this time without drugs, crime, and alcohol. These are four people that could live in almost any big city in the world.

The Problem: Turns out that growing up is hard. While Leah is content with it just being her and her husband, he is almost desperate for kids, and believes she is too. Natalie is incredibly successful, and has the picture-perfect husband and kids, but she has no clue who she is and never really did. And in her attempts to justify the life she has built up for herself, she continually projects herself as better off and happier than everyone else, including her family and friends. Felix is doing his best to turn his life around, with the help of a new woman who loves him. But he is having a hard time reconciling his new resolve with his father's stubbornness and his brother's imprisonment, as well as many old acquaintances that he hasn't lost contact with. And while Nathan used to be the boy that every girl had a crush on, he has become that figure in the neighborhood that everyone worries about, that everyone expects to hear about in the news. And even when there seems to be moments of peace, all it takes is a strange visitor to appear on a doorstep, asking for help, and everything seemingly falls apart.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that I have seen described as a tragi-comedy, and I would agree with that if I actually found anything funny about it, but I can't say that I did. The lives and events of these four people are almost presented like a creative case study. Leah, Natalie, and Felix all get their own sections, and Nathan seems to make an appearance in all of them. Leah's section reminds me of Benji's narrative in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, only it is slightly more coherent, but still pretty cryptic. Felix' section reads like most any other fiction story out there, but Natalie's section is basically a long list of facts about her life in chronological order, covering ground that we've already been over in Leah's section, but now with answers to many questions. Throughout the entire book, Smith will mention certain historical events that are common knowledge to most anyone who lives in England or the US, but instead of coming out and saying that Kurt Cobain killed himself, she'll describe Natalie and her family watching the news and knowing that Leah is somewhere holding the picture of her favorite rock star and crying. If you can follow the clues and figure out what Smith is talking about, this can be a fun device. If you can't, then it is just kind of annoying.

My Verdict: One review I saw on Goodreads used the word "dreck" to describe this book. While I think that may be a bit harsh, I am actually pretty close to calling it that myself. I am just not sure what it is exactly the reader is supposed to gain from this. It is an interesting look at four different Londoners trying to live their lives, but I can't say that it at all makes for an interesting story. The ending offers no real conclusions, and I just didn't get what the point of all of it was. And that would have been okay if the story was at all entertaining or amusing, but honestly, a large part of it was just kind of boring. Suffice it to say, I just didn't get it.

Favorite Moment: I've wracked my brain trying to pick out a favorite moment, but honestly, I got nothing.

Favorite Character: Again, same problem here as above. I definitely can't pick anyone out of the four main characters as I really don't see anything spectacular or relateable about them. I do wish Leah's mother, Pauline, had more of a presence...she seemed like that type who could (and tried to) knock some sense into all of them.

Recommended Reading: If you want to read about the intersecting lives of a bunch of fictional British characters, then I recommend Middlemarch by George Eliot. But if you prefer not to take on a door stop, then I recommend Hard Times by Charles Dickens. Unfortunately, I don't have a modern equivalent that I could think to link NW to, so I'll stick with recommending classics.

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