London has had many chroniclers, but none have quite captured the vibrant, multicultural twenty-first-century spirit of the city like Zadie Smith. The writer, who grew up in Willesden, north-west London, burst on to the literary scene in 2000 attracting all the excited hysteria of a newly discovered rock band. Her debut novel ‘White Teeth’, which she famously wrote while studying at Cambridge, was published when she was just 24 years old. It received tremendous attention, critical acclaim and a slew of high-profile awards: every English lit grad’s dream. Since then she’s written four more novels, a play, essays and short stories, and become a modern literary heavyweight, all while exuding an effortless sense of cool. As well as being a phenomenal storyteller she’s also an accomplished jazz singer, a hip hop fan who can just as easily quote Kanye West as EM Forster and a famous Luddite who eschews social media and chooses not to own a smartphone.
It’s this eclecticism that makes her depictions of London so on point. Smith celebrates the city while not shying away from the unpolished cacophony of its reality. Her London is one of kebab shops, nail salons and shabby roadside restaurants, those patches of urban suburbia dotted around the North Circular that are so often forgotten. She stuffs it with characters who are hyperbolic yet familiar, people whose lives meander and twist together to reveal profound truths about our place in the world. Even when she removes herself from her usual NW setting, her grasp of speech and language is so accomplished that her characters instantly become colourful 3D entities you could easily meet on the bus or walking down the street.
Smith once said in an interview, ‘Everything I do is an attempt to get close to the real, as I experience it, and the closer you get to the reality of experience the more bizarre it should look on the page and sound in the mouth because our real experience doesn’t come packaged in a neat three-act structure.’ All of human life is in Smith’s pages and it is messy, strange, amplified and erratic, but it is also intensely real. It’s life-affirming stuff.
Get started with: ‘White Teeth’
Smith’s debut is a modern classic for a reason. Dickensian in scope, it follows three families across three generations through many sprawling, tragic-comic strands of stories that delve into colonialism, racism, culture and identity. It’s an astounding piece of work that will bowl you over with its scale. It’s hard to believe it was ever a debut.
If you like that, try: ‘On Beauty’
Another terrific family saga, ‘On Beauty’ follows two feuding families, the Belseys, who live near Boston, USA and the Kipps in the UK. As their family politics unfold, the story asks wider questions of race, gender and love. Loosely based on EM Forster’s ‘Howards End’, it shows Smith’s ability to draw inspiration from classic literature and reinvent it in her own contemporary voice.
Still into it? Read: ‘NW’
If you miss being able to immerse yourself in London at the moment, ‘NW’ will hit the spot. Dialogue is to the fore of this story about four Londoners who, after leaving their childhood council estate, are reunited as adults by a chance encounter. Smith plays with each character’s voice to create a glorious depiction of contemporary London where the city becomes a character in of itself. It’s a beautiful story full of truth, satire and pathos.
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