Zadie Smith Hamish Hamilton; $35
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 Unfortunately for Smith, the essays gathered in the opening section, under the subtitle “In the World”, do feel out of date and weaker than others in the book.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.