Exclusive: The First Lines of Zadie Smith’s NW

July 9, 2012 | 1 book mentioned 19

coverThere’s a lot for readers to look forward to in the second-half of the year, and high up on the list is Zadie Smith’s first novel in seven years, NW. Lydia covered the book in our big preview published last week, “NW follows a group of people from Caldwell–a fictional council estate in northwest London whose buildings are named for English philosophers–and documents the lives they build in adulthood. Smith (who since 2005 has become a mother, NYU professor, and Harper’s columnist) has variously called this a novel of class and a “very, very small book” (highly unlikely). Smith’s own deep roots to London, and this particular corner of London, were most recently aired in her stirring defense of London’s local libraries for the New York Review of Books blog.” Smith sets the scene evocatively in the book’s opening paragraph.

The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on school gates and lampposts. In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside. She keeps to the shade. Redheaded. On the radio: I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me. A good line—write it out on the back of a magazine. In a hammock, in the garden of a basement flat. Fenced in, on all sides.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. Well, I’m in! Ms. Smith always always seem to leave me disappointed in the end, yet I keep coming back for more.

  2. Those opening lines pretty much fail to communicate anything except that they use English in a highly non-vernacular style. Imagine, if you would, someone walking up to you on the street and speaking those lines. Well, if you were in a bad mood, you would probably frown and continue walking. And if you were in a good mood, you might pause and laugh. But would you ever think you were in the presence of a genuine storyteller?

    I’ve read Smith’s prior books, and they’re similarly bad. (I’m a glutton for punishment.) It’s not her fault, of course — it’s her editor’s fault: they apparently cannot (or will not) rein in her excessive prolixity.

    Mr. Dick Turpin

  3. It’s unfair to judge a book based on a handful of sentences, but I didn’t much care for this either. I’ve come around to Smith as an essayist. Her non-fiction pieces are assured and persuasive; I think that’s where she does her best writing. But I find her fiction labored, derivative and unconvincing, the work of an author who is very smart and has read a lot of books, but who doesn’t finally possess the kind of intuitive distinctiveness that great writers have.

    Granted, there were good things in “White Teeth” and “The Autograph Man”, but I thought “On Beauty” was godawful. I was particularly confounded by the praise for Smith’s American dialogue, which I found quite unnatural and tin-eared. And now it appears she’s gone from E.M. Forster pastiche to Virginia Woolf!

    I think I’ll just wait for the next collection of essays.

  4. Those sentences accomplish what entire books sometimes fail to do: they paint a portrait of a culture. Actively read the details instead of just stereotyping because you can’t access the language.

  5. That’ s an awful paragraph. “The fat sun…makes me want to get in the shade, away from this hackneyed “prose.”

  6. Well, Anti jay, I actively read the details. There’s a sentence about weather, one about paint drying, some stream-of-consciousness, and some nice scene setting. Let’s not get carried away here. “Paint a picture of a culture” it does not. Nor does dissent = “stereotyping”.

    For me, the prose seems awful strained…but again, it’s one paragraph.

  7. OK, I thought I was the only one who was not impressed with ZM’s fiction. I tried to like her due to the buzz, and I thought I was missing something by not loving it. But I see I was not alone after all.

  8. It’s a shame that people who admit they don’t even like Zadie Smith clicked on the link just to criticize. I’ve never seen comments deliberately so de-constructive on The Millions before. People finding community in ganging up on an author. Worse it’s coming from adults on a site for literates, not adolescents on some pop music blog.

  9. Give Zadie a chance. If you’re not sold on the first paragraph, chances are there may be some better ones in the pages that follow. If you’re not a huge fan, then don’t get ‘NW’ in hardcover.

    I would count ‘White Teeth’ and ‘On Beauty’ in my top 25. I love her characters, her situations, and her prose in both of those efforts.

    I enjoy a couple details in the paragraph The Millions shared: the anti-climb paint gives us instantly an institutional, antiseptic sensation, where fun and mischief are outlawed through the application of a substance. It’s almost as though law enforcement is cheating.

    The language is also not so spare that we don’t immediately get a sense of the woman rendered here: idealistic, a dreamer, striving.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.