NW by Zadie Smith
NW is about two friends, Natalie and Leah, who grew up together in the northwest (NW) part of London, a not-so-nice neighborhood. Natalie was born Keisha to an immigrant family, and is a classic striver, working her way up to be a barrister. Leah works for a social services agency. Natalie has children, Leah doesn’t. Leah has a happy, sexually active marriage, Natalie doesn’t.
The most interesting thing about this novel to me were its micro-explorations of class and race and the way they affect a friendship over the course of years, especially when friends are not equally successful. All the little things that add up to resentment and guilt, the petty jealousies and the differences in attitudes and expectations. Really, this book tackled class issues in a raw, personal way that is incredibly rare, but which is crucial because that’s how we experience class. There were also some weird and interesting sex scenes: an extended discussion of masturbation, a former couple hate-fucking, and a threesome with a pair of internet-stunted college kids. Even if the experiences described are not exactly fulfilling for any of the characters, I much prefer reading this kind of sex scene to the kind of bland, generic, happy, emotionally static sex I’ve been reading about lately.
Before reading the book, I had read reviews that said Smith had just revolutionized the novel. I picked it up out of curiosity to see if she really had. I didn’t see too much new here in terms of form, but maybe I just need to have someone smarter than me explain what’s so new about this. The language seemed fresh and it was a good story, so I was happy, even if the novel hadn’t been reinvented.