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Zadie Smith made a splash in the literary scene at the turn of the millennium with her debut novel White Teeth. She has since written everything from short stories to playscripts, and made headlines earlier this year when she sang with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. South London writer Yara Rodrigues Fowler, whose second novel there are more things has been nominated for this year’s Orwell prize for political fiction, told the Observer that she was “raised” on Smith, recognising the London she knew in the novels. Here, Rodrigues Fowler suggests some good places to start for those wanting to read or reread Smith’s work.
The entry point
There is no novel like White Teeth – both in terms of the book itself and the mythology that surrounded its publication in 2000. Smith was 21 years old and still at university when she was offered a six-figure book deal for the first 80 pages of the manuscript. The sheer brilliance, audacity and possibility of her story is the stuff of British literary legend. The novel’s main characters are Alfred and Samad, two ageing second world war veterans with much younger wives, and horny rule-breaking children. White Teeth is the riotous love child of The Buddha in Suburbia and Middlemarch – full of plot twists and turns, and a world away from today’s autofiction debuts.
The most ‘perfect’ one
On Beauty, shortlisted for the 2005 Man Booker prize, is Smith’s Emma, which is to say, her most perfectly executed novel. (In case you’re curious, White Teeth is her Pride and Prejudice, NW her Mansfield Park and Swing Time her Persuasion.) Based on EM Forster’s Howards End, the novel follows the intertwined lives of two academic families – the dignified British-Trinidanian Kipps and the chaotic British-American Belseys – at Wellington College, a liberal arts college on the US east coast. At one poignant moment, the campus poet shares a poem titled On Beauty, kindly leant to her by Smith’s husband, Nick Laird.
If you’re in a rush
Smith tends to write chunky, multi-plot novels in the Victorian style, but if you’re after something you can read in an hour or two, your best bet is her 2013 novella, The Embassy of Cambodia. It’s available to read on the New Yorker website. Starting in the plural first person “we”, as in “the people of Willesden”, the novella focuses on the everyday life of Ghanian migrant Fatou.
Fatou works as a maid for a family whose health club guest passes she secretly uses to go swimming. The novella is an affectionately wrought example of the argument Smith makes in her essay In Defence of Fiction that writers need not share the background or life experience of the characters they write.
The odd one out
Grand Union, published in 2019, brings together brand-new work with a handful of short stories previously published in the New Yorker or Granta. It combines stories set in contemporary New York, such as Blocked, a novelist’s monologue, with Kelso Deconstructed, which is based on the real murder of Antiguan Kelso Cochrane by a white man in Notting Hill in 1959. Although Smith is best known as a novelist, and often describes herself as one, Grand Union contains some of her best work.
The one to mention at dinner parties
To impress your dinner guests – and get away with not having read Smith’s novels – you should announce, as nonchalantly as possible: “Actually, I prefer her essays.” (You’d be wrong, of course.) Changing My Mind, published in 2009, is made up of five sections: Reading, Seeing, Being, Feeling and Remembering. In it you’ll find a mixture of literary criticism on George Eliot, EM Forster, David Foster Wallace, Zora Neale Hurston and Nabokov, alongside other pieces. The collection includes her classic essay Speaking in Tongues, about losing her accent, and some beautiful writing about her family.
The one to give a miss
The Autograph Man was Smith’s second novel, published in 2003, and tells the story of Alex-Li Tandem, a Jewish-Chinese celebrity-obsessed autograph collector. Something about it just doesn’t work – its story doesn’t feel as alive as her other novels. Plus one character is very rude about south London. Most people pretend The Autograph Man never happened, and you probably should too.
NW, Smith’s fourth novel and her first after the financial crash of 2008, trembles with nostalgia and crisis. Named after northwest London’s postcodes, NW follows the story of two girls from the same estate, Keisha, a Black girl from a religious family and her white Irish friend Leah. As an adult, Keisha becomes Natalie, a commercial barrister with the perfect husband, Victorian house and children. Leah, on the other hand, works for the council and is reluctant to have children. The novel captures the essence of London in August – Notting Hill carnival, pints with unlikely strangers, smoking weed in your neighbour’s back garden, sex outdoors and violence. NW is Smith’s most formally daring and experimental novel, and that is what sets it apart. It combines the best of her Victorian sensibilities while transcending them, creating something more modern, stripped back and uneasy.