Zadie Smith Should Be Required Reading

Hello, I just finished book #17 of 2015, and I want to reread it immediately. I read Zadie Smith’s NW and I cannot recommend it highly enough. I even told two elderly strangers who sat next to me on a flight this afternoon that they should read it, which is saying something because I mostly hate interacting with strangers and will avoid it at all costs.

But really, Zadie Smith is a genius and I have become obsessed with everything I read by her, which so far includes On Beauty and White Teeth (both of which I would recommend, obviously.) I own The Autograph Man and really might read that next, but also might try to control myself and not overdo it with this authorial love. Anyway, out of the three novels I have read by Smith, I think NW may be my favorite. I can see myself rereading this one often over the course of the rest of my life.

So the novel centers on four main characters, some more closely connected than others, but all tied together with the shared, deep connection of where they come from. I’m pretty sure that NW is referring to the Northwest region of London, and that location is crucial. The region of NW is part of what makes the book so relatable, and almost serves as its own character with notable contributions to the plot throughout the novel.

The individual stories of these four main characters are gripping and all-encompassing themselves, but even more gripping is how they are revealed. It could have been confusing, and might have been if anyone else had tried to write it, but Smith uses such simple, purposeful details that figuring out how everything and everyone is connected is just a pleasant accompaniment to go with getting to know each individual character. Which also ends up making every connection a relatively shattering and satisfying realization.

Basically, Smith begins with a present-day narrative of a woman, Leah, and her unsatisfying, sometimes shameful marriage. In the first scene of the novel, a lot is revealed about Leah based on her actions in a strange situation, but then as her section goes on it becomes apparent that a lot has not been reveled (and won’t be directly revealed) about her at all. All the characters that Smith has created work like this, “becoming” themselves to the reader very gradually, and turning out to be incredibly complex and therefore so real and amazing.

The section that follows is one featuring an entirely new set of characters, the main one named Felix (who might be my favorite). The only thing that the reader can tell right away is that he is connected to Leah through his home. This section is also different from the first in various subtle ways, like the chapter-naming format, and the way that speech is represented (using quotation marks, unlike Leah’s section). Little details like that are interesting, even if I’m not sure how to interpret them. Anyway, Felix’s section ends kind of abruptly and very ominously.

Then the novel moves back to a close friend of Leah’s, one who the reader meets in Leah’s section. But Smith begins her story far in the past, so it took a little bit of time to reorient myself with this new character as a child, who clearly undergoes a lot of changes to become the character I had already met briefly in the first chapter. This section is also subtly different in that it’s much more consistently broken up with poetic, brief words or phrases as chapter names. Finally, the story ends with a section that serves as kind of a reunion between two characters, and features a new character who has been mentioned regularly throughout the novel before the reader gets to meet him.

This method is so great at building the story and creating a ton of dramatic tension. Especially because everything comes full circle at the end when several issues come to light and the characters are forced to react. As with everything, I’m not sure if this will totally make sense unless you’ve read the book, but it’s such a page-turner.

And when I say Zadie Smith should be required reading, I’m being really serious. She is able to discuss the subtle and the huge, palpable tragedies of being a human being so well, maybe better than anyone I’ve read in a while. All her characters are complex, lovable, pitiable, contemptable, and so painfully unsure of themselves that I really felt like I was meeting real people while reading this  novel.

She is also so effective at capturing the essence and the complexity of race and sexuality, two topics that are easy to get completely wrong. I don’t know what it is about her writing, but reading NW felt like I was reading a novel that was twice as long, the second half filled with all the things that she says without saying on top of what’s actually printed in the book. She’s so good, and I know I’ll be thinking about this book for a while.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that she deserves to be on all syllabi next to the classics, because she writes about life so well. ◊

There is a connection between boredom and the desire for chaos. Despite many disguises and bluffs perhaps she had never stopped wanting chaos.”

– Page 365

“Some days have a depressing thematic coherence.”

– Page 152

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