Feel Free | Book Review

Feel Free

Zadie Smith

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.

Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith

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*

Max Hastings – Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975

Bernard MacLaverty – Grace Notes

Ernest Hemingway – In Our Time

Andrew Roberts – Napoleon the Great

Emily Bronte – Wuthering Heights

Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale

Kamila Shamsi – Home Fire

Annie Proulx – Brokeback Mountain

Anthony Doerr – All the Light We Cannot See

Ellipsis: Three magazine

Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird

Jon McGregor – Reservoir 13

Colson Whitehead – The Underground Railroad

Amor Towles – A Gentleman in Moscow

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


26 thoughts on “Feel Free | Book Review

  1. Love the review… makes me want to read this book… especially since it seems exactly up or down the proverbial alleyways/rabbit holes my mom would have loved and explored, and she had such great taste in books… thank you for sharing this, Matthew. I like how you begin with the way you discovered the book… very personal… just a great and interesting review, as always.

    (Tiny typo… *tool instead of *took in the opening quote I think… only mention it since I was confused by it at first. Feel free to remove this section of comment… :))

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good shout on the typo. There’s always one that slips the net! That’s what you get for finishing writing the article at 2am! Thanks as always for your support Nadine, particularly with what you’re managing just now.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have to admit that the blogs of friends on WP are a very welcome escape at the moment… never mind typos my own posts are riddled with them… I wish I hadn’t mentioned it really ;)) thanks as always for your kind words Matthew xo

        Liked by 1 person

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