Meeting Zadie Again

It was a breezy evening in Paris.  Shakespeare & Co was filled with its normal charm and groups of anxious, excited bibliophile tourists.  The ka-ching of the cash register couldn’t be missed from outside, which was filling up with hopefuls who wanted to catch a glimpse of or hear a few words from the illustrious Zadie Smith.  This would be her second visit to the famous Shakespeare & Co. in Paris – almost exactly one year since her first visit, which I was equally IMG_1750lucky to attend.  I waited with three friends hoping that arriving early would equate to available seating.  However that wasn’t so easy since this meeting was set up by New York University(where Zadie Smith teaches creative writing) for students and staff.  They paid so they got ninety percent of the seating.

All the festivities took place outside and that led to a different, noisier atmosphere.  Last year it took place inside Shakespeare & Co, where the staff lined tiny little stools among all the available space inside the less than spacious bookstore.  It was a tight squeeze but we all made the best of it because we were going to see Zadie.

Once all the chairs were lined up outside.  We finally grabbed four available seats and just prayed nobody would ask us to give them up. Whew! 7pm came and we were still seated. By this time there was an extremely thick crowd that surrounded the seating making for an impressive turnout.  Since I was in the back row i could feel people just behind my chair.

The festivities took off right on schedule.  Zadie’s opening act was none other than her husband Nick Laird, Irish novelist poet.  I had no idea he was going to be there.  He was a nice surprise though.  His rich Irish accent and his humorous, straightforward poems were refreshing.  I’m looking forward to picking up one of his collections.  He seemed a little nervous in the beginning but he soon warmed up to the crowd that was obviously mostly there to see his wife.  His poetry got lots of laughs and smiles and was an excellent debut before Zadie Smith.

At last Zadie started to speak and the silence from the audience contrasted hugely from the cars, trucks, buses and blaring horns that seemed to surround us.  Nevertheless, we all had our ears perked up for the story she read us which was a bit of the new novel she’s working on, that she called Swingtime.  Love the title and adored what she read.  It was about two little black girls and their meeting for the first time and recounting a birthday party they attended.  It was all IMG_1796very Zadie Smith – race and class conscious, sensitive, a strong first person voice.  It was everything I love about her books.  I could see that they inspire each other.  The strong first person voice is present in both their work.

After her reading quite a few pages ūüėÄ to us the book buying recommenced and the lines for book signing lengthened quickly.  It didn’t take too long before I found myself in front of Zadie again.  She signed my three books that I didn’t get signed last time – The Autograph Man, On Beauty, and Changing My Mind:  Occasional Essays.  She was very pretty and dressed in a cute dress which looked thrifted.  Her brown turban was covering her hair as usual  but making her bright wide eyes stand out on her beautifully freckled face.  She was smiling but not nearly as much as the first time I saw her.  She seemed tired.  All in all I was happy to see her for a second time and hear a bit of the new book she’s working on, which I can’t wait to read.  Apparently she’s been working on a film with her husband but not sure when it’s coming out or what it’s about.




I opened NW on Friday night and immediately became submerged in this part of London that I’ve never been too. ¬†I closed andIMG_1092 finished it late Sunday night. ¬†My reading was supported by the excellent Penguin audiobook. ¬†The two first-rate audiobook readers added to the tremendous life that Zadie Smith put into writing¬†NW. ¬†Each accent gave me that perspective I needed to relate to the characters but most of all to give me the right tone. ¬†The tone that I imagine Zadie Smith was imaging when she wrote NW. ¬†I found myself comfortably reading and merging into this complex story – “the story of guests and hosts and everybody in between” (back cover of NW, Penguin edition). ¬†Uncomfortable. Challenging. ¬†Shocking. ¬†Colorful. ¬†Sincere. ¬†Brutal. ¬†NW ¬†packs the punch that maybe some aren’t ready to read.

NW is the story of two girls, Kesha and Leah, that have grown up together and been close friends for a long time. One is white and the other is black. ¬†We follow them as young girls who become successful young women. ¬†Their starting point is NW. ¬†NW is their shame, their fond memories, their family, their friends,…. ¬†It isn’t far from shopping on the High Street, sightseeing on double-decker buses, and lounging in Hyde Park. ¬†However, it seems to be a place that is important to both characters since it is the place they grew up, their focal point, and it is part of who they are, no matter how much they try to hide it.

The novel is split into 5 parts. ¬†Each part tells the story of inhabitants of NW who may or may not be directly connected to the main characters. ¬†The majority of the second half of the book is a series of short sections that are numbered from 1-185. ¬†What is important is the feeling and ambiance that you’ll get as the story continues. ¬†Contemporary in structure, this sort of stream-of-consciousness writing is captivating and spirited. ¬†It will keep you hooked. ¬†At times, it made me laugh aloud. ¬†Nothing really happens in NW because it is a character driven novel. ¬†Don’t go into reading this thinking it’s just a typical plot that moves from A to Z. ¬†It’s more than that and you’re going to have to work to enjoy and to understand the importance of it. ¬†Imagine trying to piece together a puzzle. ¬†However, everything fits together in the end. ¬†I highly recommend the audiobook, which is extremely helpful with the different accents. ¬†Being American I would have had difficulty imaging them all in my head correctly. ¬†Really, that audiobook made a significant difference.

The writing is continuous speaking, with scattered dialogue here and there. ¬†It’s the first time I’ve enjoyed stream-of-consciousness writing. ¬†I can’t explain it but for me it made sense. ¬†The mosaic of characters, incidents, and life happenings made the story tangible, until I got to the end. ¬†Sure life is abrupt, but the ending lacked a serious amount of reality. ¬†That was the only thing that really bothered me. ¬†I read somewhere that Smith was taking care of her young daughter when she was working on NW so wrote in chunks which is probably what gave birth to the numbered sections in the second half of NW. ¬†All the same, I’m impressed with Smith’s capacity to capture the authenticity of each of her characters no matter how minor they are in dialogue. ¬†It’s brilliant. ¬†I could even imagine what each character might look like even though there weren’t necessarily descriptions. ¬†Dialogue is so important and she is the “Queen of Dialogue”.

Having read White Teeth and The Embassy of Cambodia (loved them both), I read On Beauty and didn’t like it very much. ¬†I wasn’t really sure what to expect with NW. ¬†Well it’s really good, however a challenging read it is well worth it. ¬†I’m rating this one 4,5 stars. ¬†I have to say I’ve fallen in love with Smith’s writing again. The next Zadie Smith’s I’d like to read is Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays and The Autograph Man (nobody ever mentions it).



The Embassy of Cambodia

This is a short story that Zadie Smith wrote and had published in The New Yorker. This is the short story more elaborated but it is being marketed as a small book. Actually it’s a short story or novella. I’m not so sure I agree with that, but it’s a good thing that as readers we are given a choice on whether we want to pick up the book (which is cute) or get the electronic version. ¬†Nevertheless I enjoyed it and wished it was¬†longer.

17565927The Embassy of Cambodia is the story of Fatou a live-in maid and baby-sitter that is working for a wealthy Arab family living in Willesden, which is a borough of Brent in North West London. ¬†They have taken her passport so she isn’t really free. ¬†Every afternoon Fatou steals free passes from a drawer in the hallway (which no one notices) to go to the Olympic sized swimming pool in town, where she passes the Cambodian Embassy. ¬†There she swims laps and observes the people around her. The book is only 69 pages and composed of 21 chapters, which are labeled 0-1, 0-2, etc. ¬†Each chapter is a look into Fatou’s life and a critique of society. Smith’s writing is minimalist but brilliant. She manages to tell this story with very few words and the meaning somehow shines through. ¬†That’s the genius of Smith’s writing. ¬†Smith touches on many themes such as religion, relationships between men and women, the plight of modern-day slaves, social class, illegal immigrants, etc. ¬†I’m thrilled to have picked this one up but as it was so short I was left wanting to know more about Fatou. ¬†Henceforth the problem I have with reading short stories. I recommend this one to lovers of Zadie Smith. ¬†For those who haven’t had the pleasure of the Smith experience, I suggest On Beauty since it is a story with a more typical story line, although I don’t think it’s one of her best works. As a whole,¬†On Beauty is more accessible. The Embassy of Cambodia can be acquired gratuitously on the internet. ¬†I decided to pick it up because Zadie Smith is becoming one of my favourite authors and I wanted the physical book. ¬†So what about you? ¬†Are you a fan of Zadie Smith? ¬†If so what have you read from her that you liked? ¬†I’m due to read NW, hopefully before the end of the year.