Emmy the Great Reads: Zadie Smith

Emmy the Great Reads: Zadie Smith

I am walking up Kilburn Lane in Northwest London, a small, wrapped gift in my purse, and a bottle of supermarket Merlot nestled in the crook of my left arm, while wrestling with the compass feature on Googlemaps. I walk up this long, busy road, which leads from Kensal Rise Overground, and I check every number on every door until I find my destination. Nervous, sure, but excited, I press a buzzer. 
 
“Hello?” The sounds of people talking, and Outkast’s Ms Jackson (someone has put on a playlist called "Nostalgia"), bursts through as well, as though trying to spill on to the street via the signal on the door system.
 
“Hi, is this the Zadie Smith party? I know I’m late, but…”
 
 
Late is an understatement. Zadie Smith’s debut novel White Teeth was published in 2000, the year Smith became a literary phenomenon. That August, someone was stabbed to death at the Notting Hill Carnival. In 2002, she published The Autograph Man, in 2005, her third novel On Beauty. (In 2009, I moved to Ladbroke Grove, and the 52, a oft-cited bus route in the Smith canon, became my local bus.) In 2012, NW was released, its timeline built around a fictional Carnival stabbing. (In 2013, I left London altogether, and started itching to read about it). In 2014, I spent a month binging on novels three, four, and one (in that order), and became obsessed with Zadie Smith.
 
Perhaps it is inevitable that I would show up, over a decade after the party began, begging to be let in because what I lack in punctuality, I make up for in enthusiasm. The moment Kilburn appeared in the opening chapter of On Beauty ("It's in this bit of North London called 'Kilburn', which sounds bucolic, but boy oh boy is not bucolic in the least...") I was hooked. I don't think I'd ever thought of Kilburn, with its Pound Shop, council library and its slow crawl of traffic heading north towards Brent Cross Ikea, as the location for one section of a novel, let alone an entire bibliography. During the brief period, after Ladbroke Grove, that I lived in Kilburn, I didn't even think of it as the location of my actual life. But in a single passage, Smith can take a grey corner of a city that you think you know really well, and make you see it differently, filling it with personalities, and interactions, and the crazy, colourful memories of each of its inhabitants. The same vitality is afforded to any corner of the world she chooses to cast her writerly eye upon, be it Trafalgar Square, or a tiny French village at the close of WWII. It is also the same for states of being. You may think you know family, or being in love, but Smith can make you know it a little better. 
 
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So here I am, buzzed in and now awkwardly bouncing to the Notorious B.I.G. in a small Georgian second floor flat that somehow holds millions of people. If I wanted to, I could wander down a corridor in search of some more party wine for my empty mug, or dip into one of the themed rooms. Theme one: North West London. Theme two: many cultures in one family. Theme three: one-son-who-is-more-gangster-than-the-other-children. Theme four: a life-changing gift. Theme five: social mobility. Theme six: escaping your past. Theme seven: marriage. 
 
Etc.
 
Or, I could join in one of the conversations in the Criticism Room, and if prompted, say something like, “Um, I guess she can be a bit ambitious? Like, you can sometimes see her ambition better than you can read the writing? But it's also kind of a strong point too?" 
 
Or, I could hit the Influences Lounge, where I will hang with Salman Rushdie and Charles Dickens, and David Foster Wallace, whose books often bear this Smith quote: “A visionary, a craftsman, a comedian…He’s so modern he’s in a different space time continuum from the rest of us. Goddamn him.”
 
Mostly though, I am hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the characters. Maybe it will be Samad Iqbal, the Bangladeshi patriarch of White Teeth, slowly drowning in his disregarded past, yet still madly proud and trying to find a semblance of his culture in his children. Or maybe I will meet Kesha, of NW, in the toilet line with one of her children, and speak to her as someone who has seen beyond the flawless façade of a wealthy and successful lawyer named Natalie. If at any point I tire of partying, I hope to turn walk through a wardrobe and find myself miraculously on foreign soil, in the big Boston house populated by the Belsey family of On Beauty, maybe sit and speak to the complicated Kiki Belsey, who has grown gloriously fat over the course of her marriage, or fall a little in love with Levi, her son, the one who likes hip-hop and talks like he’s from Brooklyn. All these characters and the constellations of their interactions, created by Smith, are more than lifelike - they live. 
 
I've been unable to stop thinking about one scene in NW for the last month. It arrives in the middle of the novel, in the chapter that focuses on Felix, the tragic central sacrifice. Felix is visiting an old lover, Annie, in a poky Soho flat. I don't know if it's her bad makeup, or her coldsore ("what looked like a single breakfast oat on her bottom lip, painted over with scarlett..."), or the faded-aristo ramblings with which she defends her lifestyle ("She could talk anyone away from her door. She could fall and fall and fall and never quite hit the ground"), but she's been on my mind most days. Her appearance is fleeting, she might just exist to give Felix a reason to take the train when he does, but she has been imagined in 360 degrees, right down to her great-uncle, the Earl, and the bottle of prescription medication behind her perfume, which, when mixed with alcohol, has the same effect as ketamine-laced ecstacy. The impression I get, when reading Zadie Smith, is that she loves her characters, and it is with this love that she writes them into existence, onto the page, and passes them over to you.
 
Annie, though she has never lived in the postcode most often in question, might also provide the central message of the Zadie Smith canon, when she says, "He lives in North West London, a dinky part of it you've probably never heard of called Willesden, and I can tell you now you'd be wrong to dismiss it acutally, because actually it's very interesting, very 'diverse'. Lord, what a word."
 
So yeah, I love Zadie Smith. 
 
And I have just begun The Autograph Man.