Zadie Smith became an instant phenomenon when her bestselling debut novel White Teeth was published at the tender age of 25. Instantly hailed as “the new Salman Rushdie,” it was clear that an astonishing contemporary writing talent had arrived. That was back in 2000, and since then, she has published a number of novels, essays, and short stories exploring race, identity, and the modern world, many of which are set in her home turf of Willesden in North West London. Incisive and warm-hearted, both sharp-eyed and funny, Smith’s longer novels are characterized by large and lively casts of characters and deliriously intertwining plots. If you want to dip your toe into one of Smith’s modern family sagas, the list below will help get you started.
1. White Teeth
Broadly considered one of the best novels of modern times, White Teeth is an expansive saga following the fortunes of two families from Bangladesh and Jamaica settled in the multicultural area of Willesden, London. Two wartime servicemen named Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal were best friends when working on a tank crew in the latter days of WWII. Years later, Archie is married to a Jamaican woman, Clara Bowden, and Samad is married to Alsana Iqbal, a fellow Bengali Muslim from Bangladesh. As a former colonial power grows into the rich tapestry of modern London, the family lives of the two men grow ever more complicated. Starring animal rights activists, Muslim militants, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, White Teeth captures the lively span of modern domestic life.
Smith’s second novel The Autograph Man is a more melancholic affair, exploring the hollow and lonely trappings of celebrity, cinema, and modern life. Alex-Li Tandem trades autographs. Jewish, half-Chinese, and in his twenties, he is hostile to religion, ill at ease with his background, and in a state of prolonged mourning. He lives an aimless life in London, collecting and trading signatures. The pursuit of one in particular enthralls him, a rare signature of the ’40s movie actress Kitty Alexander. In a sly nod to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Alex dares not own a copy of his favorite film The Girl from Peking for fear he wouldn’t do anything except watch it over and over. For 13 years, he sends weekly letters to the long-retired actress, asking for her signature. When he finally gets a response, his directionless life is thrown into sharp relief.
3. On Beauty
Smith’s third novel departs from her native London, following instead the lives of two mixed-race families living in the USA. Published in 2005, On Beauty is inspired by E. M. Forster’s classic novel Howard’s End. Howard Belsey is an English university professor working on a long-awaited book on Rembrandt. He is married to an African-American woman named Kiki, with whom he has three children. As he struggles to publish his work, Howard’s life and that of his family become more and more intertwined with Monty Kipps, a Trinidadian academic with whom he shares a fierce professional rivalry. As the families’ lives intermingle, they engage in affairs, clash on academic values, and come up against racial tension and cultural differences between the US and UK.
The titular postcode area of NW in North West London is brought to life in gritty, exuberant detail in Smith’s fourth novel. Leah, Felix, Natalie, and Nathan were all born and bred in Willesden and Kilburn. Once funneled through the same low-performing primary school, they have found themselves on very different paths since. However, in their own way, they have all since had to wrestle with class and racial tension, sex, drugs, and casual violence in modern London. A novel in four parts, the narrative style of NW, as in White Teeth, shifts with each character it follows, but the whole is brutal and lively throughout.
5. Swing Time
Smith’s fifth novel Swing Time begins with the unnamed narrator shut away in a hotel room after being fired as the long-term personal assistant to the world’s biggest pop star. Jobless and disgraced, she reflects on the path her life had taken. Two mixed-race girls from neighboring council estates grow up against the backdrop of North West London in the 1970s and 1980s. As a young girl, the narrator met Tracey at a community dance class. Where Tracey is wild, fearless, and a natural dancer, the narrator is flat-footed and unsure. However, the narrator succeeds where Tracey does not, by getting out of the neighborhood in which they grew up. As a PA to ageless, preternaturally wealthy pop star Aimee, the narrator jets about the world. But her relationship with Tracey is far from over, and the narrator finds herself being called back to the neighborhood she tried so hard to leave behind.