Penguin, Random House
‘One last thing: writing this novel reminded me that a writer should not undervalue any tool of her trade just because she finds it easier to use than the others. As you get older you learn not to look a gift horse in the mouth. If I have any gift at all it’s for dialogue – the trick of breathing what-looks-like-life into a collection of written sentences. Voices that come from nowhere and live on in our consciousness, independent of real people…It’s this magic, first learned in the playroom, that we can never quite shake off, and which any true lover of fiction carries within him or her somewhere.’
This was an impulse Amazon purchase for me. Usually I’d resent feeding into their oh-so-accurate algorithm for book choices, but it did the job it was supposed to and prompted a click. It wasn’t one I regretted.
Any exploration of Zadie Smith’s writing should, lore dictates, begin with White Teeth, her debut novel which was published when she was twenty-five. Stardom and a plethora of literary awards followed, and Smith is now a tenured professor of creative writing in New York University. This is her second collection of essays, and so certainly not the most obvious place to start. Nevertheless, three days after purchase the letterbox spoke, and so on I went.
What I loved most about the collection was the lack of pretence in Smith’s writing. She tackles subject matter ranging from local libraries, through Tupac, to Vladimir Nabokov with grace and charm, and not a trace of snobbery or condescension. I struggled to pick out an obvious structure in some of the opinion pieces (due to my own ignorance rather than Smith’s lack of skill), but such was her down-the-rabbit-hole conversational style that it rarely mattered. She effortlessly hops from subtopic to subtopic, incisive and interesting.
I found Part 3 of the book most challenging, where Smith writes a series of essays on art. My own knowledge of the likes of Balthasar Denner and Mark Bradford is, embarrassingly, non-existent, but Smith doesn’t let that stop her. She leads the uninformed and ignorant, child-like through the galleries, explaining and prompting discussion as she goes. As with all good essays, discussion inevitably goes beyond the source material and onto broader themes.
Overall, I found the collection illuminating. Zadie Smith let’s us in on what for me is an extraordinarily perceptive and analytical brain. I would love to hear her speak, and anyone interested in the art of essay writing could do a lot worse than read this excellent collection.
*Thanks for reading, folks. Image courtesy of Wikipedia. Find my other reviews below*
Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Near to the Knuckle, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, and Shooter magazine. He is an absentee member of the Glasgow Writers Group, a PhD student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.
Not necessarily in that order