Intimations - Zadie Smith Review

by Amy Baxter, Editor

I did not enjoy Intimations. At some points, I wanted to throw it away and stop reading. It made me very sad, and very angry, and very confused. It’s very brilliant, and you should definitely read it.

I pity the person that had to write the copy for Intimations. Where would you even begin? You could describe the contents factually: “Zadie Smith presents six essays”. Although, one is broken into six plus a postscript, so perhaps it is “Zadie Smith presents thirteen essays”. On what? The copy would then have to explain. “Zadie Smith presents five and seven-sixths of essays on Lockdown”. And I suppose it’s a very good thing that I’ve not been asked to write the copy for this book because I’ve made it sound dreadfully boring. Why on earth would you want to read any more about Lockdown? Good Lord, is there no escape?

The answer is, dear reader, that you would want to read more about Lockdown because Zadie Smith has written about it. Honestly, I could leave the review there and it would be quite enough. The kind of person to read a book review on a website that caters solely to literary reviews by Black, Asian, and marginalised community writers, is almost certainly a subset of the type of people who buy Zadie Smith’s non-fiction. That’s not a criticism, that’s a wonderful observation. How delightful to be writing for an audience full of Zadie Smith fans. It makes the heart flutter.

I am one of the few, I think, that has always preferred Smith’s essays to her fiction. Not because I think one is better than the other, but because her non-fiction makes me feel like I am smart enough to engage with her thoughts. Reading Feel Free was a delight, sharing essays with my Dad about Hov and libraries and the history of art and Key and Peele made me feel like the most culturally aware person in the whole of Zone 6. I assumed, going into Intimations, that I would have a similar experience. I would revel in the snippets of agreed thought between myself and this goliath of literature, wisely acknowledge my inferior knowledge on almost every subject, and often dangle the topics into future conversations with similarly literately inclined friends. That is not what happened with Intimations. Not at all.

Intimations is a slap in the face. It was difficult to read, harder still to engage with. Through the lens of her own existence in Lockdown, Smith rips away any pretentious you may have about powering through the Lockdown. Loneliness. Envy. Contempt. All of it ripped apart and laid in front of you to observe.

In her second essay, The American Exception, she focuses on The American Man Who Must Not Be Named, and existence in the early days of lockdown. She thinks about life before: “Then he spoke the truth: we didn’t have death. We had dead people.” And I felt like she had leaned through the page and shaken me. She is of course, correct about us all, though here she addresses only America. We have had dead people before, and wars, and wars on drugs, and people dying, and illness, and viruses. But we’ve never had death before. “But now,” she says, “as he so rightly points out, we are great with death - we are mighty with it.” And though it is a critique of American leaders, of leadership, of war and plague and famine, I am left with the unshakeable recognition that we have all been asleep at the wheel because ignorance is easier than engagement. This is something she touches upon in many essays, in many facets of life. But this essay? She demonstrates this in five and a half pages.

It feels silly to muddle my way further through the book, to attempt some more poor copy summarising essays, or their contents, or how they made me feel. I think it would do the topics a disservice. I will, however, highlight it’s greatest moments. 'Postscript: Contempt as a Virus', in which she pries apart Dominic Cummings, and policemen who devalue and murder Black people, the people (us) who sit in this system and let it exist, shouting out things wrong with it and hoping that it will change. 'A Woman with a Little Dog' on a woman and a little dog and loneliness and neighborliness. And 'Intimations', the final part. To say any more would be to ruin it.

I picked up Intimations expecting to enjoy it, to gloat to you about its contents and the knowledge that I now possess. Instead I am left churning, wide awake, and emotional. It is not a fun book. It is very beautiful. It is quite possibly the best thing published this year so far. “There will be many books written about the year 2020”, Intimations begins. And Intimations will stand with the best of them.

Intimations (Hamish Hamilton) will be available for purchase from Thursday 6 July. All author's royalties will go to charity. Thank you to Hamish Hamilton for the review copy.

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Quarterly literary review magazine by Black, Asian, and marginalised community writers.