Feel Free by Zadie Smith, Hamish Hamilton, 464pp, £20
If you happen to work or live with someone who is uncommonly tall, it is unlikely that they preface many conversations with “Being a tall person…” Constantly reaffirming one’s own identity, or aspects of one’s physical appearance, is unnecessary. However, Zadie Smith, at least in this collection of essays, often reminds her readers that she is a) a novelist, b) a mixed-race woman and c) middle class. She is, at the same time, extraordinarily open and her essays, on topics ranging from Spielberg to Seneca, traverse pop and high culture with ease.
A defiantly personal standpoint makes for an entertaining read, but is a weaker basis for argument. Beginning Feel Free with politics, Smith says: “Much has been written about the shockingly irresponsible behaviour of David Cameron and Boris Johnson,” here stating an opinion, while swerving an exact claim to it. About Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Smith writes: “Here’s my guess … he wants to be liked.” If that’s true, he has a funny way of showing it.
Feel Free is at its most enriching when Smith crosses between philosophy and literature, writing thoughtfully, for example, about how an online profile “reduces” an individual, or about the power of fiction written in the first person.
Smith lacks a committed critic’s resolute detachment, meaning that essays aimed at specific works can miss their mark. For those who haven’t seen the film Anomalisa, Smith’s description of it sounds like someone recalling a nightmare. But the fabulous “Dance Lessons for Writers” is considered, clear, and insightful.
Smith frequently explores the complexities of race. “A part of me is always writing backwards to the confused brown girl I once was,” she says.
Looking back on her lower-middle class upbringing – self-identifying again – Smith writes: “I do think every family home is an emotionally violent place, full of suppressed rage, struck through with profound individual disappointments.” Her willingness to dig into typical, but difficult, life experiences draws an audience to Smith, and readers will find plenty to savour here.