Reviews of Zadie Smith's fourth novel, NW, have been, to put it kindly, mixed. Much of the criticism seems to stem from Smith's “indecision” throughout the novel: it's divided into four very different sections, all of which suck the reader in before tearing them away. As someone who rather liked the book, I found that each section read best in a specific place. Likewise, the wrong reading location had profound effects on my enjoyment of the book, and I had to stake out a better reading territory. Perhaps if Michiko Kakutani had taken the same guess-and-check approach, she wouldn't have called NW "a much smaller, more meager book than White Teeth.”
Below, I share some of the best places to read each section (no spoilers, I promise). After all, if environment affects how we learn to read, why shouldn’t it also affect how we read?
Section 1: Visitation
Ideal Reading Location: Home, on a nice day
The novel opens in the quiet, beautiful apartment of Leah Halwell, one of the book's duller characters. Excitement happens once in a while, but for the most part, you may find yourself getting up for another drink or flipping open your laptop to scan your newsfeed once in a while. Any time I tried to read the slow, thoughtful pacing of this section on the subway, I was distracted by my seatmate's gum chewing or the conductor's garbled announcements. A casual, serene location, much like Leah's apartment, was the best place to acclimate myself to Smith's intricate, cherry-picked prose.
Section 2: Guest
IRL: The subway
The action starts chugging along with the introduction of Felix, a drug-dealer-cum-mechanic who's ready to settle down. Reading this section in a cramped subway car on my way to work proved to be the ideal distraction during my commute. Smith seems to hit her stride here, throwing in characters that maintain a fairytale shimmer despite their brutally realistic settings. It's a harsh awakening from the first section of the book, and it goes hand-in-hand with shrieking brakes and whooshing doors.
Section 3: Host
Reading over lunch is always a struggle: turn the page, take a bite, read a paragraph while chewing, don't spill, repeat. It helps that this section is chopped into manageable, diary-like entries. Again, this section is a big change from the last one, and the biggest departure from what I consider the tried and true Zadie Smith voice. She even went the Tao Lin route and threw in some gchat transcripts, which for many, will take some time to digest.
Section 4: Crossing/Visitation
IRL: Park bench
After a somewhat bizarre revelation that occurs in the previous section, you'll need to sit down and focus. Your neighborhood park may help you feel closer to the community Smith works so hard to examine in the novel. Grab a seat away from the dog park and playground; no time for distractions now. NW may be a chore to get through, but in the end, the characters keep drawing you back. If you've read any of Smith's other books, you know she likes to give her characters their comeuppances. The book's finale is pretty messy, but after all this time you've spent with it, you'll be eager to see what becomes of everyone — of these vivid characters who have become your neighbors, lunchmates, and groggy fellow passengers.