Three years of my life as an EU student of English Literature at the University of East Anglia,England.
Yesterday evening I finished reading NW by Zadie Smith for Contemporary Fiction and went to the lecture and seminar today. I felt I needed to say something about it now, while it’s still fresh in my mind. But the thing is, I don’t have much to say about it, it’s one of these novels that needs to be read and experienced, partly because it doesn’t really have a plot.
The novel is divided into unequal sections, each have a different style, and I wasn’t sure about it at the start. It took me a while to get into it and when I did, I found myself completely lost in a narrative and read an entire part without knowing what it was about at all. However, I got back into it very quickly and suddenly realised that this was one of the most singular and amazing novels I’d read in a while. I also feel like it is one of the most — if not the most — contemporary novel I have read for this module (or ever) which felt good. I needed something new and somewhat “radical” in its form.
NW may be a plotless novel but there is so much to it. If I had to sum it up, I would say it is an incredibly touching and relatable story that invites us to think about what it means to live in the 21st century city and perhaps, more broadly, about life itself.
Because I spent the whole of Easter (and a couple of weeks before the holidays) working on my European Literature essay, I couldn’t help reading Zadie Smith’s brilliant piece as an existentialist novel: the author mentions Sartre and Camus among other 20th century philosophers, the absurd, freedom, suicide — which reminded me of Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus — and, like in There But For The by Ali Smith, about justice (“There but for the grace of God go I”).
The novel also concerned with time and place (as the title indicates, “NW” is a postcode and refers to the Northwest suburbs of London) and does interesting things to it, but it also deals with issues of technology, modernity, gender, race, identity, and sexuality (in a very graphic and direct way!). I loved the recurring binary between human/animal (with a interesting question that was raised at the end of the novel: why eat some animals and not others? I have to admit that the vegetarian part of me was very happy) and probably paid too much attention to it, but we could link it to other novels studied on this module such as Andrew Cowan’s Worthless Men which also thinks a bit about animals.
The reason why I loved this novel so much is simply because I think anybody can related to it and to certain events or thoughts that occur to the main characters. You literally live their lives and grow up with them. It does jump around a lot and can be hard to follow but it’s extremely rewarding once everything comes together!
If you want to read something new, destabilising and wonderful, NW is the place to explore! I know I’m going to read more by Zadie Smith! Unfortunately, I have to go read King Lear by Shakespeare (boo).