The author of prodigious works such as White Teeth and On Beauty, Zadie Smith is a big name in contemporary fiction. Smith’s novels deal with issues of race, identity and friendship, weaving together characters who are complex, relatable and fascinating.
Hailing from London herself, most of Smith’s novels are set in the British capital. Smith builds up the settings of her books, expertly using language to describe every street corner. The setting is as important as the characters in her novels, with the setting of each event contributing to its overall interpretation, allowing her to broaden her commentary and allowing her characters to appear more rounded, more physical, and more real.
On Beauty – a lesser known novel in comparison to White Teeth, the novel that made her name – is a masterpiece of modern fiction published in 2005. Loosely based on E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End, On Beauty is a cross-continental tale of two families, Belsey and Kipps, detailing their interactions, their confrontations, and their identities. Set in the outskirts of both Boston and London, the novel describes the coming-of-age of the families’ younger generations and the mid- life crises of the older. Although it is based upon Forster’s tale, the novel really comes into its own, changing plot details and updating the story for the modern era, discussing issues of race, gender and class.
Smith’s use of language is full of wit. In On Beauty, the narrative voice appears sarcastic at times, commenting upon the characters, critiquing their every decision or action. The narrator is brutally honest about the novel’s characters, laying bare their every flaw and allowing the reader to observe every insecurity, every imperfection. This allows the reader to become truly acquainted with the novel’s characters. Rather than feeling like an outsider, merely observing the action, Smith draws her readers right to the heart of her writing. Her voice remains staunch throughout generating questions, comments and observations regarding the novel’s subject matter, whilst maintaining a level of comedy and wit.
Swing Time is Smith’s most recent novel. Like On Beauty, it too deals with issues of race, class and gender, yet on a far more personal level. Instead of the omniscient narrator of the former novel, Swing Time is delivered through the lens of a first-person narrator, who remains unnamed throughout the book. Set in the part of London where Smith herself grew up, Willesden, the novel tells the tale of two girls from different estates, the unnamed narrator and headstrong Tracey, who both dream of becoming dancers. Unlike in On Beauty, Smith’s narrator is less witty, though she remains critical. The narrator’s introspective criticism and judgement of the actions of others facilitates a wider critique within the novel. The reader witnesses the book’s events directly through the eyes of the protagonist though is never quite clear exactly where she stands on some issues. Her exact thoughts and observations appear aloof on a number of occasions.
The beauty of Swing Time is expressed in Smith’s descriptions of the joy and delight which Tracey and the protagonist similarly feel when watching vintage films. Smith captures the childlike excitement, wonder, and curiosity of the two girls as they spend hours poring over videos of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and their particular icon, Jeni LeGon.
Zadie Smith’s intelligent, creative, and witty writing style places her right at the heart of the modern literature scene literature. Her realistic representation and authentic discussion of contemporary, cultural issues both challenges and delights, allowing for multiple interpretations and experiences while reading her novels. Whilst drawing from a rich literary tradition, Smith expertly moulds a new style of writing, one which is distinctly and exclusively her own.
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