20 Books of Summer, #11 and #12: NW and The Unwitting

This year, I’m doing 20 Books of Summer as a rereading challenge. I can read any twenty books I want as long as I have read them already!

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Before rereading: I first read NW in 2013, when it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I’d found the two previous Zadie Smith novels I’d read – White Teeth and On Beauty – ponderous, pretentious and caricatured. In comparison, this was a breath of fresh air. I don’t remember much else about the novel, though.

The first time I read NW, I wrote: ‘NW, in my opinion, is everything that White Teeth should have been – sharply observational, genuinely funny, perceptive on the interlocking system of inequalities that form from class, race and gender, and incredibly evocative of the small corner of London in which it is set. Because it’s free of the stereotypes, caricatures, and laboured farce that I felt marred [Smith’s] earlier work, it’s a much more engaging read, with a cast of fully-rounded characters who each get a chance to tell their own story in their own style (I was particularly fond of the long Natalie Blake section, which told the story of a very individual girl but also said a lot about selfhood and identity). As this suggests, Smith extends her range stylistically in this novel as well, and her experiments with words worked much better for me than they’ve ever done before’. I ranked it third of the six novels on the Women’s Prize shortlist, behind Kingsolver and Mantel.

After rereading: This was a really interesting reread. I felt like I liked NW both less and more than I did the first time round, although my rating hasn’t changed. Having read Swing Time since, I still believe that the later novel is the most fully-realised and accomplished version of the themes that Smith explores here, and is also distinguished by a much more naturalistic and seemingly effortless style. In contrast, the experimentation of NW feels a little laboured, a difficult transition from one kind of novel to another. Having said that, though, it’s also incredibly sharp, especially in its later sections. I can see why Smith included the two narratives that make up the first half of the novel – Leah’s and Felix’s – but they ultimately feel like a lot of throat-clearing for the brilliant Natalie Blake section that, as I noted in my first review, is what NW is really about. The whole book builds towards Natalie’s meeting with former schoolmate Nathan, and the choice that she ultimately makes as she tries to reconcile the world of her childhood with her new life as a bigshot corporate lawyer. Smith plays so intensely with voice that every reader is bound to find bits that don’t work for them and bits that do, but it’s in the Natalie chapters that this really feels coherent and worthwhile, whereas it can get in the way of Leah and Felix’s stories. Swing Time remains my favourite Smith, but this is a close second.

My rating in 2013: ****

My rating in 2022: ****

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Before rereading: I first read The Unwitting in 2014, while I was writing up my PhD thesis! I’d enjoyed Ellen Feldman’s previous two books, Scottsboro and Next To Love, and I was attracted by its Cold War setting.

The first time I read The Unwitting, I wrote: ‘Pivoting around November 22nd, 1963, the novel jumps back to the early 1950s to explore the beginnings of Nell and Charlie’s relationship. Soon after they meet, Charlie is offered a job on a liberal, anti-Soviet journal, Compass. Nell is equally committed to the journal’s remit, to oppose both ‘the totalitarianism of the left’ and that of the right. In the McCarthy era, a number of its writers fall under suspicion, including Charlie himself; and Nell is, dimly, suspicious of where Compass’s financial backing is coming from. In the loose-living circles that they frequent, it would be easy for Nell to lose her trust in Charlie, and suspect he was cheating on her, but she trusts completely in his faithfulness. What niggles at her is the loose threads that never quite seem to make sense – like the story on the coup in Guatemala that she wrote for Compass, but which was rejected at the last moment… A particularly satisfying thread in The Unwitting is the way in which Feldman turns the traditional plot – a woman’s happy marriage is shattered by the discovery of adultery – on its head, by suggesting that, for Nell at least, there are worse crimes than sexual unfaithfulness… I admired Feldman’s deft, precise and clever writing… however, [she] gives us less to think about beyond the obvious, and is so economic with her narrative choices that the novel feels over-schematic.’

After rereading: Again, my rating remains the same, but I’m inclined to be rather kinder to The Unwitting than I was in 2014. I don’t think it feels over-schematic any more, although it is certainly tidily demarcated into the ‘before’ and the ‘after’ of Nell’s marriage. I also don’t agree with my prediction in 2014 that ‘I doubt there is enough depth in The Unwitting for me to want to read it again’; I both enjoyed this reread and found it thought-provoking. As I said in my original review, I liked how Feldman juxtaposes personal and professional betrayal, but flips this familiar theme; it’s Nell who is most wounded by what Charlie keeps from her professionally whereas Charlie feels less guilty about his deception when he discovers Nell has cheated on him. The revelation at the heart of this story does not feel especially huge or shocking, which is why I think a lot of readers have complained this is a novel where ‘nothing happens’ (the publishers didn’t help here by billing it as a spy story, which it is not). However, I admire Feldman’s bravery in exploring something that feels so significant to Nell even if it is less obviously significant to readers who didn’t live through the Cold War in the United States. Not every twist needs to be jaw-dropping. I’d definitely recommend this to fans of Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife and Rodham. 

My rating in 2014: ****

My rating in 2022: ****

 

5 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer, #11 and #12: NW and The Unwitting

  1. NW and Grand Union are two Zadie Smith books I haven’t been able to get through, though tbf I haven’t given either a concerted effort. On Beauty used to be a favourite but didn’t work for me on a reread so it may just be that I’ve gone off her in general.

    Your comparison to Sittenfeld makes me think I should read The Unwitting! Feldman is a new name to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d recommend Swing Time – much more accessible and readable than NW or Grand Union.

      Feldman obviously isn’t quite up there with Sittenfeld, but I do like the books of hers I’ve read.

      Like

  2. Really interesting, although I liked White Teeth and On Beauty (and was there another early one?). Doesn’t NW have animal cruelty in it, though? I thought it did but may be mistaken. I’m loving your project and your reactions still, such a good theme and I’m wondering if I can do it next year (bet I have too much TBR to!).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, The Autograph Man- I’ve not read that one and I don’t think I’m alone!

      Animal cruelty definitely isn’t a prominent theme, I think there’s one incident with a dog being kicked and dying early on, but this is a few paragraphs. I can’t stand dogs getting hurt tbh so I just skimmed.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer, 2022: A Retrospective | Laura Tisdall

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