Book Review: “NW” (2012) by Zadie Smith

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Willesden is the setting of both this book and Smith’s debut novel, “White Teeth.”

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(I wish my rating system allowed for a more nuanced rating, like 3.5 stars. This book is flawed, but still really great. More on that later.)

 

A couple of chapters into NW, I had a revelation. “Mrs Dalloway! If On Beauty was a modern take on Howards End, then this must be Zadie Smith’s spin on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway! I’ve got the ‘hook’ for my review!” One quick Google search later, I sank back into my seat. Turns out the rest of the world had had that same idea when the book first came out in 2012, and that Smith had actually discussed Woolf as a direct influence on her book:

I was just trying to find a way to be adventurous and do something new in the writing while still holding on to the things that I can do well, [...] So [Virginia Woolf is] just a good example of a forward-thinking and yet consistently humane writer, and just a great female modernist. An old inspiration returned to me at the right moment.

Well. So much for my spark of brilliance.

…Anyway.

Major plot spoiler towards the end of the review.

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Reading List: Campus Novels

Science fiction author Joe Haldeman once said:

Bad books on writing tell you to “WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW”, a solemn and totally false adage that is the reason there exist so many mediocre novels about English professors contemplating adultery.

And yes, ageing white professors cheating on their wives is definitely a recurring theme on this list – but there is also some sexual experimentation, a murder or two, slapstick comedy, and plenty of cheap wine.

In Omnia Paratus!

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Reading List: Postcolonial Rewritings of the Imperial Canon

After my reviews of Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (here) and On Beauty by Zadie Smith (here), I decided to dedicate a full post to postcolonial rewritings and reworkings of the Western literary canon.

These are some works that I could think of off the top of my head, but if there are any more out there that I should know about, please let me know in the comments!

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Book Review: “On Beauty” (2005) by Zadie Smith

"Belle" Portraits - 2013 Toronto International Film Festival

Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

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It should be obvious from the first line that this novel is inspired by a love of E.M. Forster, to whom all my fiction is indebted, one way or the other. This time I wanted to repay the debt with hommage.

So let’s talk about E.M. Forster’s Howards End (1910), one of the last great “condition of England” novels. In this genre, the writer draws a picture of English society and its many problems, often showing that change is necessary for a better future. In this book, Forster examines class relations in particular and argues that the strict social hierarchy of the Victorian age has no place in the modern world. He is critical of Edwardian society, but also seems hopeful that these issues can be resolved and that people will be able to find a way to connect despite their differences.

In On Beauty, Zadie Smith takes the plot of Howards End into the twenty-first century. There are still two families, one liberal and one conservative, who find their fates intertwined by a sudden engagement. There is still a young man looking to climb up the social ladder and, like Forster, Smith asks the reader to rethink the meaning of identity in a multicultural world. However, she adds an extra dimension, one that makes this novel instantly relevant to today’s society: race.

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