Reader’s Guide to NW by Zadie Smith


The Voyage Out Book Group’s Reader’s Guide to NW by Zadie Smith


Book Information:


NW by Zadie Smith

Penguin Press

416 pages



Contemporary Female Novelists from England

Other Books From Region:

Pat Barker’s Life Class

Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body

Author Bio:

Zadie (born Sadie) Smith was born in Willesden, North London, to parents Yvonne Bailey and Harvey Smith in 1975. She grew up in Kilburn—a working class neighborhood in Northwest London. The family of her, her parents, and two brothers lived in a housing development.

Smith’s childhood was fairly typical, but her parents were anything but. Smith recreated her parents first meeting in White Teeth. Her mother is 35 years younger than her father and from Jamaica. Her father is a war veteran who still feels guilt from things that happened during WWII.

Smith, as can be expected, was a quiet, private, book nerd, who spent a lot of her time (when she was not reading) listening to Hip Hop with her brothers. She was obsessed with Hollywood celebrities of the past. Her and her father would spend hour after hour watching old black and white movies together. Smith developed an obsession with Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and most fully for Katherine Hepburn. Smith would even go on to name her daughter Katherine.

Smith wanted to be an old movie star. When she realized that the big production Hollywood musicals were things of the past, she lost interest. She lived out a little of this childhood dream in college when she sang songs by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holliday in nightclubs during college.

She was an early writer. Writing poetry and short stories at six. In her teens her stories resembled Agatha Christie, and her poetry resembled Sylvia Plath.

But, as mentioned above, she was more a reader than anything else. She devoured canonical English Literature: Austen, Forster, Dickens,…etc. Her mother’s attempts to introduce her to more black writers, and female writers fell on largely deaf ears. After finally relenting to her mother’s wishes, Smith developed a lifelong love for Zora Neale Hurston.

In 1987 her parents divorced. This is also the same year Smith stopped going by Sadie, and started going by Zadie.

In 1994 Smith attended King’s College at Cambridge. She was well aware, and possibly constricted by the schools fully masculine history. But, she immersed herself in the study of Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, and Vladimir Nabokov, and she excelled.

While at Cambridge Smith meets her future husband, Nick Laird. Both Laird and Smith are instrumental in the publication of Cambridge’s May Anthology of Oxford and Cambridge Short Stories. Between 1995-1997, Smith has four stories publishes in the prestigious anthology.

In 1997, Smith submits an unfinished, handwritten manuscript of White Teeth and receives a reported $400,000 two-book publishing contract with Hamish Hamilton. This large advance for an unknown author who was only 21 shocked the literary world, and Smith became something of a celebrity.

White Teeth was published in 2000. It was loved by most. Smith was now the center of everything that was hopeful in the book world. She was a new, talented voice. This fame came with a price. Smith rejected much of the reporting that centered around her looks and her age. This new found celebrity, combined with her childhood love affair with Hollywood, informed her next novel: Autograph Man.

Autograph Man was published in 2002. The novel was not well received, and Smith took the critical drubbing poorly.

In 2004, Smith marries Laird.

In 2005, On Beauty was published. The book takes place in America, and looks at an academic lifestyle. Critics loved On Beauty, and the book won the prestigious Orange Prize.

Harvey Smith dies in 2006.

In 2009, Smith presides over the Willesden Herald International Short Story competition. Smith creates a bit of controversy by not rewarding the prize one year. She did not feel that any of the stories submitted were worthy of publication. That was the last year Smith presided over the contest.

Smith published a collection of essays in 2009 called Changing My Mind. The collection consists of previously published non-fiction work, and may be the best insight into Smith’s writing and thinking process.

She also gave birth to her first child in 2009—as mentioned earlier, Katherine.

In 2012, Smith published NW.

Smith continues to write wonderful journalistic essays. Two of her most famous and well received are her interview with Jay Z and her meditation on Joy.

Questions/ Tangents/ Topics:

1) Epigraph’s are always interesting to me. NW opens with two lines from John Ball. The subject of the lines are interesting, and what is said is  confusing in a wonderful way, but my question is about the formality of the poetry and the fact that the lines contain two declarative statements followed by a question. NW is a heavily structured novel, how does Ball’s poetry prepare us for what comes next? How does form function in this novel and in this poem?

2) We haven’t talked about titles very often. I think it’s one of those things in the Book Group Manual. Talk about titles first or last, but talk about titles always. We don’t follow that rule. But NW is such a particular title that I hope we’ll talk about it first. Any thoughts on what tiles should do, and on what NW does do? Does the perfect mixture of specificity and vagueness reflect the novel?

3) “I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me.” Smith sort of riffs on this statement. What is the effect of the riffs, and what are the implications of this statement?

4) Smith’s writing style is to start at page one and end at the end. She doesn’t piece together books. So she spends a lot of time starting books. She messes with form and POV and style at the start, then figures out what this book will be, and continues from there. Her first three books could have been a hundred things, but they were all the same, and she seems sad when she talks about them in that way. NW is different, and I couldn’t be happier for her. Now, what do we think about that difference?

5) In such a structural novel, what are the ways structure and plot interact? Can they be separated?

6) NW has hard stops at the end of each section. Although everything is connected, these narrative and stylistic shifts make it more of a challenge to jump between sections for reference or grounding. What happens to the text of you switch Leah and Natalie/ Keisha’s section? Meaning, what of the book begins with Keisha, and Leah’s story isn’t introduced until the third section?

What We Talked About When We Talked About This Book:

  • A question came up about the architecture of the book. What effect does changing font, style, and space have on the reader? What do we do when we come into contact with these?
  • Felix’s section was the most traditional narrative, and almost wholly the group felt Felix was flat. A character born to die for purposes of plot. The word archetypes was thrown about in reference to Felix.
  • Much of the media about this book focuses on its location, NW London. It has been said that this is Smith’s love letter to a place. A few members questioned that. Does this feel like a particular place? Or, could this be any major metropolitan area? Could this book be called Bronx?
  • Smith’s humor dots the narrative in the most wonderful ways. Her comic timing in perfect when it comes to lightening an almost unbearable downward spiral for some of the characters.
  • This book is a departure for her from her previous novels. We talked about whether this is a movement to something new, or a one time shot at something different.

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