Credit: Penguin Books

Review of Intimations: Zadie Smith’s portrait of ‘the now’

By Esme Orssich

The breakthrough lockdown novel in which we are all protagonists.

Since the beginning of March, advice that actually helps us navigate this changed normality has been a rarity. Clarity has become a unicorn concept seen once in a blue moon. As a second lockdown looms over Glasgow, my recommendation is to dash to Waterstones and read guru Zadie Smith’s new book, Intimations

Intimations as a physical book is inviting, alluring, and – thanks to this magical word on the front – concise. Comprised of 82 pages, the book does not intimidate the non-reader, and tempts the avid one. The printed hand-scribble that reads “Six Essays” on the cover is unpretentious and self-aware. “This is not a novel”, it states, this a suspended distillation of thought that reflects the times we have seen, the times we are in. It’s an in-between of sorts.

Written in the beginnings of the “global humbling”, Smith writes confusion into order. The book both educates and refreshes, leaving you nodding your head in understanding and relatability. Intimations makes sense of the debris flying around in this hurricane. Smith acknowledges with grounded sentences and a clear directness our longing for the past, the contradictions of politics, as well as the inequality of a virus that is also a social leveller. She does this without lecturing and arrogance, without drilling in her thoughts, but rather by leaving them on the table for you to pick up when you want. She does it with gentleness.

The essays are observant and sensitive, with the penultimate one being a series of “screengrabs” that paint portraits of characters we can recognise in ourselves. Her words are warm and non-judgmental, reacting with kindness to the different scenarios described. For instance, she refers with gentleness to a homeless man in a wheelchair, who declares the virus a “cold” and separates himself from “these people” who run scared. We are all guilty, during this pandemic, of separating “us” from “them”, from the people who are being “irresponsible” or “self-indulgent”, of mounting our high horses for protection. Smith corrects us, inviting us to make space for the reality of suffering. 

The “screengrabs” include a woman with willful blindness to her dog’s unfriendly nature, an elderly man at the bus stop ranting with humour, and a masseur called Ben. The portraits depicted celebrate our unified fragility, finally making sense of the slogans that state “we are in this together”.

The author looks at how emotions that become viruses live within us. She looks at how the virus of contempt infected the White police officer as he suffocated George Floyd. Smith redefines terms that have been associated with Covid-19, such as “herd immunity”, to address the purposeful exclusions that have been permitted in our society. Examples being the exclusion of Black students in schools, and the racism experienced by dark-skinned people.

Zadie Smith does this all while being honest about herself; while raising herself no higher than the reader. In her final essay Debts and Lessons, her awareness creates sentences that stand as manifestos in their own right. This book is worth the online order, the walk to your local bookshop or the begging to borrow from a friend. With all proceeds going to charity, Intimations is as generous in its nature as it is in its existence.


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