April 2018

by Anwen Crawford

Zadie Smith’s ‘Feel Free’
In this collection of essays, Smith shines when she’s addressing the personal

Feel Free (Hamish Hamilton; $35), Zadie Smith’s second collection of essays, begins on a defensive note. “These essays you have in your hands were written in England and America during the eight years of the Obama presidency and so are the product of a bygone world,” she writes in her foreword. Unfortunately for Smith, the essays gathered in the opening section, under the subtitle “In the World”, do feel out of date and weaker than others in the book. An essay on “the coming emergency” of climate change never meets in tone or detail the magnitude of that description, and, besides, one might equally say that the emergency isn’t coming, it’s already here. A Brexit piece has Smith circling around the class differences that the referendum exposed, but she relies too much on op­ed clichés (“the white working classes”, “the middle-class left”), and displays little political foresight in her characterisation of Jeremy Corbyn as “fatally ineffectual”.

Smith is a more lively and honest writer when she takes her interior life as her primary subject. “Some Notes on Attunement”, originally published in The New Yorker, is ostensibly about Joni Mitchell but is really an examination of what it feels like to change one’s mind about a thing. (The subject is dear to Smith’s heart: her first essay collection, published in 2009, was called Changing My Mind.) The book’s third­-to-­last essay, “The Shadow of Ideas”, is an episodic narration of some time that Smith spent living in Rome, and it pivots on her private reaction to an apartment fire that destroyed most of her and her husband’s possessions. “Everything lost can be replaced. Yes, in the history of my clan it was an unprecedented thought.” Class and family are recurring topics, and, Brexit essay aside, Smith is skilled at discussing them. “The Bathroom”, an essay that begins with her childhood move from a north­-west London council estate to a four-­bedroom maisonette with two toilets, becomes a poignant tribute, from the perspective of her own materially secure parenthood, to the sacrifices that Smith’s parents made.

Outside of the foreword, Obama hardly comes up again. But I suspect that for Smith his diplomatic and occasionally ambivalent air looked like an ethical position. Whether it was or wasn’t is a more difficult question. The least successful essays here mistake inexact, noncommittal thinking for useful ambiguity, but the most interesting hold on to hesitancy as a way of being in the world.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic and the author of Live Through This.

April 2018

In This Issue


Rethinking the republic

A change in our head of state won’t change everything, and other lessons for the next push

Tim Winton’s ‘The Shepherd’s Hut’

One of Australia’s most acclaimed novelists offers a painful and beautiful story of redemption

The republic is an Aboriginal issue

Recognition must be at the heart of constitutional reform

Could a computer mark a NAPLAN essay?

If student assessment is automated, what might it miss?

Read on

Image from ‘Atlanta’

‘Atlanta’: thrillingly subversive

Donald Glover’s uncommon blend of the everyday and the absurd makes a masterful return

Image of Peter Dutton

South African farmers: we will decide

Australia, refugees and the politics of fear

Image from ‘The Americans’

‘The Americans’, the Russians and the perils of parallels

Why sometimes it’s better to approach art on its own terms

Image of Hugh Grant in ‘Maurice’

Merchant Ivory connects gilded surfaces with emotional depth

Restraint belies profundity in ‘Maurice’, ‘Howards End’ and more