cover image Feel Free: Essays

Feel Free: Essays

Zadie Smith. Penguin, $28 (448p) ISBN 978-1-59420-625-2

In this collection of conversational essays, novelist Smith (Swing Time) brings her precise observations and distinct voice to an expansive range of topics. Smith comes across as a writer’s writer, with a love of form, function, and language—“Oh, the semicolons, the discipline!” she exclaims of Edward St. Aubyn. A self-professed “sentimental humanist,” Smith is alarmed by social media platforms such as Facebook and is smartly cutting on American race relations, discussed through pop-culture reference points that include Jay-Z lyrics and movies such as Get Out, “a compendium of black fears about white folk.” She is lacerating on the subject of British politics, blasting the ruling class’s “Londoncentric solipsism”; rather than policy changes, she advocates for nothing more—or less—than art and literature’s power to free the mind. At their most memorable, the essays are character studies, whether of a culture, such as the “limitless” Manhattan of “Find Your Beach”; a place, such as Rome’s Villa Borghese in “Love in the Gardens”; or a person, such as Billie Holliday in “Crazy They Call Me.” Smith’s explicit discomfort with any authoritative stance—“I have no real qualifications to write as I do”—feels a bit disingenuous, when this collection’s chief appeal lies in the revealing glimpses it affords into the mind and creative process of one of the most admired novelists writing in English. [em](Feb.) [/em]