Zadie Smith's books include novels and essay collections. Image of Smith: Getty

Image of Zadie Smith: Getty

Zadie Smith was just 24 at the time her much-celebrated debut novel White Teeth was published.

Since then she has turned her hand to everything from novels to pop culture criticism, and later this year releases Intimations, a collection of essays on the experience of lockdown.

She's been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, won what is now the Women's Prize for Fiction, and been named in Granta's 20 Best Young British Novelists list twice.

From essays to fiction and criticism, here's our guide to where to start reading Smith's books. 

White Teeth (2000)

Smith received a £250,000 advance for her debut novel, impressive for anyone but especially so considering she was aged just 24 at the time of its publication.

White Teeth is the story of two friends – Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal and Englishman Archie Jones – who met during the Second World War. Set in Willesden (a favourite setting for Smith, and the place she grew up), the book examines friendship, love and Britain's relationship with people from nations it formerly colonised.

Writing in The New York Times, critic Michiko Kakutani said White Teeth was "a novel that announces the debut of a preternaturally gifted new writer – a writer who at the age of 24 demonstrates both an instinctive storytelling talent and a fully fashioned voice that's street-smart and learned, sassy and philosophical all at the same time". 

On Beauty (2005)

Smith's third novel won what was then the Orange Prize for Fiction (now the Women's Prize for Fiction), and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Set between New England and London, the book tells the story of two families – the Belseys and the Kipps – and is an homage to E. M. Forster's Howard's End. The action takes place largely in Washington, with events spurred on by a long-time professional rivalry between university professor Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps, who begins work at the university after moving with his family from London.

Writing in The Observer, Stephanie Merritt described On Beauty as "exceptionally accomplished novel" and said that Smith "has added an extra dimension to Forster's scrutiny of class by stirring elements of race and nationality into the mix". 

NW (2012)

The tragicomic NW follows four Londoners: Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan. The book takes its title from the NW postcode area of North West London, where the novel is set.

NW is split into sections for each character, and showcases Smith's flexibility as a writer, switching between stream-of-consciousness, first and third person and other styles.

Novelist Anne Enright, writing in The New York Times, said NW was "an unpacking of Smith's abundant narrative gifts to find a deeper truth, audacious and painful as that truth may be", resulting in "that rare thing, a book that is radical and passionate and real".

Swing Time (2016)

Moving between London and West Africa, Swing Time is an exquisite novel that examines race, class and the fragile nature of friendship.

Its action goes back and forth between the present, where the narrator is working for a Madonna-like popstar who wants to open a school for girls in the Gambia, and the past, where the narrator and her best friend Tracey are schoolgirls who dream of being dancers.

Writer and photographer Taiye Selasi said that Smith's fifth novel was "her finest". "What makes Swing Time so extraordinary are the layers on which it operates; beneath its virtuosic plotting lies the keenest social commentary," Selasi wrote in her review

Feel Free (2018)

Feel Free collects together new and previously published essays by Smith, and shows the diversity of subjects Smith can comfortably tackle, from Brexit to Jay-Z and Justin Bieber. It’s the perfect book to dip into to get a glimpse of Smith’s talent.

Writing in The Guardian, Alex Clark said Feel Free confirms that Smith is "a non-fiction writer of striking generosity and perception”.

In The New York Times Amanda Fortini said: "It is exquisitely pleasurable to observe Smith thinking on the page, not least because we have no idea where she’s headed." 

Grand Union (2019)

This short story collection contains 11 new and previously unpublished short stories alongside pieces from The New Yorker and elsewhere.

Among the collection is the story of an Antiguan immigrant in North West London living the last day of his life, unknowingly caught in someone else's story of hate and division, resistance and revolt, and that of a mother looking back on her relationships and examining the ways in which desire is always an act of negotiation, destruction, and self-invention.

Reviewing the book in The Guardian, writer and teacher Kate Clanchy said: "There is no moment in Grand Union when we are not entertained, or doubt that we are in the company of one of our best contemporary writers."

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