Saturday 24 March 2018

Feel Free by Zadie Smith {Reviewed by STELLA}
Zadie Smith’s collection of essays covers several years, from 2010 to early 2017. Most of that time she is based in America, with small forays back to England to visit family and attend speaking events. As such she is a British subject looking from the outside and an outsider looking within. This makes for an interesting perspective of American and British politics and culture. The first essay rests easily in her home neighbourhood and decries the closing of the public library and the rise of private, over public, space. She’s visiting North-West London with her daughter - a witness to the unravelling of community. In several other essays she draws on her childhood in London and her family’s cultural background to add richness to her arguments and musings. The essays are observations of a time and place that sometimes feels like ancient history, although many are just a few years ago: these are the years of the Obama administration in America, and Theresa May is yet to appear on anyone’s radar. Brexit is in its infancy - a situation that Smith sees from afar, yet she already has a nuanced view. It is her essay about FaceBook, 'Generation Why?'  - written in 2010 - which strikes home so succinctly, especially in light of the current Cambridge Analytica saga. Her focus isn’t so much about privacy issues - this is part and parcel of social media - but is an analytical breakdown of what FaceBook is, who Mark Zuckerberg is or represents, and the weirdly successful platform, so that once you read Smith’s essay you will be thinking about reaching for the disconnect button (if you haven’t already) or at least being aware of the strange, almost cult-like, philosophy that underpins FaceBook. The essays are divided into several clusters that cover politics, media, art and writing. While some of the essays refer to entertainment (television programmes), art or music that might be foreign to the reader, Smith is adept at contextualising these aspects into a broader discussion of race, cultural practice or social issues which help to bind the varied topics. And yet her essays are exceptionally personal: observations that can only come from her own experiences, her own world-view and where she stands in the world right now (or at the time of writing). Feel Free is an opportunity for Zadie Smith to explore - to mine her wealth of ideas - without the constraints of the novel form. The most successful explorations are areas where Smith is well-versed - in the writing section the essays about Ballard and Kureshi stand out - or has a layered personal history to draw from. Her essays on culture, race and social stratification (common themes in her novels) leave you with the most to think about.  

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