Feel Free

Zadie Smith Hamish Hamil­ton; $35

The Monthly (Australia) - - NOTED -

noted by An­wen Craw­ford

Feel Free, Zadie Smith’s sec­ond col­lec­tion of es­says, be­gins on a de­fen­sive note. “Th­ese es­says you have in your hands were writ­ten in Eng­land and Amer­ica dur­ing the eight years of the Obama pres­i­dency and so are the prod­uct of a by­gone world,” she writes in her fore­word. Un­for­tu­nately for Smith, the es­says gath­ered in the open­ing sec­tion, un­der the sub­ti­tle “In the World”, do feel out of date and weaker than oth­ers in the book. An es­say on “the com­ing emergency” of cli­mate change never meets in tone or de­tail the mag­ni­tude of that de­scrip­tion, and, be­sides, one might equally say that the emergency isn’t com­ing, it’s al­ready here. A Brexit piece has Smith cir­cling around the class dif­fer­ences that the ref­er­en­dum ex­posed, but she re­lies too much on op-ed clichés (“the white work­ing classes”, “the mid­dle-class left”), and dis­plays lit­tle po­lit­i­cal fore­sight in her char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion of Jeremy Cor­byn as “fa­tally in­ef­fec­tual”. Smith is a more lively and hon­est writer when she takes her interior life as her primary subject. “Some Notes on At­tune­ment”, orig­i­nally pub­lished in The New Yorker, is os­ten­si­bly about Joni Mitchell but is re­ally an ex­am­i­na­tion of what it feels like to change one’s mind about a thing. (The subject is dear to Smith’s heart: her first es­say col­lec­tion, pub­lished in 2009, was called Chang­ing My Mind.) The book’s third-to-last es­say, “The Shadow of Ideas”, is an episodic nar­ra­tion of some time that Smith spent liv­ing in Rome, and it piv­ots on her pri­vate re­ac­tion to an apart­ment fire that de­stroyed most of her and her hus­band’s pos­ses­sions. “Ev­ery­thing lost can be re­placed. Yes, in the his­tory of my clan it was an un­prece­dented thought.” Class and fam­ily are re­cur­ring top­ics, and, Brexit es­say aside, Smith is skilled at dis­cussing them. “The Bath­room”, an es­say that be­gins with her child­hood move from a north-west Lon­don coun­cil es­tate to a four-bed­room maisonette with two toi­lets, be­comes a poignant trib­ute, from the per­spec­tive of her own ma­te­ri­ally se­cure par­ent­hood, to the sac­ri­fices that Smith’s par­ents made. Out­side of the fore­word, Obama hardly comes up again. But I sus­pect that for Smith his diplo­matic and oc­ca­sion­ally am­biva­lent air looked like an eth­i­cal po­si­tion. Whether it was or wasn’t is a more dif­fi­cult ques­tion. The least suc­cess­ful es­says here mis­take in­ex­act, non­com­mit­tal think­ing for use­ful am­bi­gu­ity, but the most in­ter­est­ing hold on to hes­i­tancy as a way of be­ing in the world.

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