11 Oct Author Spotlight: Zadie Smith
Written by: Nick Philip, Adult Services Supervisor
There haven’t been many more hotly anticipated arrivals on the literary scene than Zadie Smith. Her debut manuscript was purchased before its completion while she was still a student at Cambridge. Since then, her novels have continued to be hotly anticipated on both sides of the Atlantic and she is heavily noted for her examinations of the melding of cultures and collisions of identity in her native Great Britain. Her sixth and first novel since 2016, The Fraud, is already on the shelves at PGTPL! This novel is a first for Smith, leaving the contemporary sphere to tell a story set in 19th-century England. The inspiration for the novel comes from the Tichborne case, a legal case of succession in Victorian England where a butcher in Australia attempted to lay claim to the English Tichborne baronetcy. The ensuing court case was a hot story in England at the time and allowed Smith to tell a story of people connected to the case and their places in society. If you’re interested, check out Smith’s other novels below, along with links to our catalog to place them on hold.
White Teeth, the novel that started it all, was released to the world in 2000 to immediate acclaim. It follows two World War II buddies, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, as they raise families late in their lives. Their story continues with their children: Irie, Millat, and Magid. As first novels go, White Teeth is nearly fully formed, humorously tracing the intertwined fates of these two multicultural families. The novel was immediately placed on assigned reading lists at universities across the English-speaking world and is often noted as an iconic and culturally-significant modern novel. White Teeth was later adapted by Channel 4 in the UK as a miniseries in 2002 and shortlisted for the 2000 Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Smith’s 2005 novel On Beauty repeats some elements of White Teeth, namely the richly drawn pair of multicultural families, but this time expands the setting to include the United States and the world of academia. The patriarchs of On Beauty are Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps, two diametrically-opposed professors of British and Trinidadian descent respectively, based in Massachusetts. The narrative follows the winding and intersecting paths that their lives, wives, and children take. Smith acknowledged E.M. Forester’s work, Howard’s End, in the publishing of this novel. On Beauty secured Smith the 2005 Women’s Prize for Fiction and was shortlisted for the 2005 Man Booker Prize.
Smith returns to London in her sophomore release, 2002’s The Autograph Man. It differs from White Teeth in that there is a clear main character, the titular autograph dealer Alex-Li Tandem. The narrative follows Tandem as he tracks down celebrity autographs and eventually meets with a reclusive actress from the era of old Hollywood. Like the younger characters of White Teeth, Alex is of mixed parentage, which informs the way that he interacts with his surroundings. Generally, The Autograph Man wasn’t the critical success that White Teeth was, but it was still nominated for the 2002 Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Swing Time follows the lifelong friendship between two mixed-race girls from London, Tracey and an unnamed narrator. While both girls have a passion for dance, natural talent leads Tracy onto the stage and the narrator off of it and into an assistant role for a Madonna-esque pop star. The girls’ fortunes wax and wane, with both of them seeing success and struggle professionally and romantically. The book was fairly well-received and was longlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize.
2012 saw Smith veer from her previous realist style and write an experimental novel called NW. In the matter of plot, it follows four working-class Londoners through adulthood and through their attempts to transcend the class system that is so endemic to the United Kingdom. The adventurous aspect of the novel is found in how much Smith plays with form throughout. NW oscillates between viewpoints, formats, and styles throughout, attempting to mirror the heterogeneous nature of London and its inhabitants. By this point, Smith was well established as the type of author perpetually in the running for the big literary awards, so it probably won’t surprise you to learn that NW was nominated for the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction. It was also adapted as a film by BBC in 2016.