Reading Zadie Smith
“A good book is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility what human nature is of what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.” — Susan Sontag
I did not know Willesden, not the Willesden that exists in Zadie Smith’s novel, White Teeth. Her North West London seemed far from my little corner in Hoxton. London as a whole still felt foreign to me, so I read White Teeth as an outsider, not really understanding the multicultural setting that Smith described. Silence followed, at least, in class discussions. Multiculturalism in London felt more authentic than the American version, which seemed forced in some ways. Racial tensions never seemed apparent in London or perhaps, I wasn’t looking for them. White Teeth was published five years before I moved to the UK. Time changes us so it wasn’t strange to think a country may have evolved. While my classmates were looking at their culture, I was examining a culture that I did not really know yet. Smith made the plot accessible and slowly I understood the London in her novel.
And so it began, a quiet assimilation, watching pieces of myself disappear. The next time I read Zadie Smith, I was no longer considered an outsider. Having lived in London for a few years, I understood the city more, but I was still felt like a stranger. Foreignness is a mark that never vanishes.
One day I discovered Smith’s third novel and everything else was forgotten. On Beauty reveals a social awareness that I had not seen previously, in third person, she explores American society with humour and vast insight. Of course as readers we recognise the subtle echoes of E.M. Forster’s Howards End, the act of bequeathing and the nuanced examination of class. Even though I read this book while in Devon, the descriptions of Cambridge are so vivid that Smith brought Massachusetts to life.
NW brings us back to her Willesden. This time I knew Willesden. The English colloquialisms and innit’s were now familiar; her dialogue was revisiting a place that I missed. There is a beautiful rhythm in every sentence, when read aloud one can find similarities to a jazz beat. A strong beat of a city moving with time as its inhabitants experience life. Perhaps it’s reminiscent of a beautiful Coltrane song, after all reading Zadie Smith is a profound experience. Part 1 consists of a stream-of-consciousness technique that mirrors the breathless rhythm of a Miles Davis song. The brief chapters are a chance to reflect on the novel’s narrative. The beautiful fragmented structure leaves readers wanting more.
Read Women 2014 is an opportunity to explore a writer that we may have overlooked in the past, I found Zadie Smith over a decade ago and it has changed me as a reader. There’s an indescribable feeling that I get when Hamish Hamilton releases a new Zadie Smith novel, I’m overcome with a childlike giddiness and something else I can’t quite pinpoint. White Teeth pushed me to see a London that I wouldn’t ordinarily know and I am grateful.