Intimations by Zadie Smith

“Death has come to America. It was always here, albeit obscured and denied, but now everybody can see it.”

The human body is an incredible thing in that it readily adapts and responds to changing environmental stresses in a variety of biological and cultural ways. Humans are the most adaptable beings on earth, but according to primatologist Jane Goodall, humanity will be “finished” if it fails to adapt after COVID-19. 

Nothing could have prepared me for the challenges of this past year, but I have adapted. And I have held onto the phrases I hear again and again “we will get through this together, and we will survive.” 

I've held onto hope. 

In her new book, Intimations, Zadie Smith has organized some thoughts and feelings that events over the past year have provoked in her. In a short and well crafted book, filled with connection, compassion, kindness, and love, Smith captures the essence of the pandemic in a nutshell. 

Photo by Stephanie Keith for The New York Times

While waiting to escape New York City for a flight to London while she can, Smith heads out to a nearby ATM. She turns onto Broadway to find the streets deserted. Imagine Manhattan in New York, the city that never sleeps… asleep? Subway ridership dipped lower than it had since its opening weekend back in 1904. 

Desolate, lonely, isolated. 

That leaves us wondering. Where are the New Yorkers? 

Looking back today, one year later, and more than 30,000 New Yorkers have died, restaurants and theatres are on the brink of bankruptcy, and hotels still remain mostly empty. While the city is beginning to open its eyes with the vaccines pouring in, one has to wonder whether life will truly return to how it was or if again, we will adapt to a new normal. 

Zadie mentions a powerful essay by writer Ottessa Moshfegh, author of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which appeared in the Guardian last April. Ottessa's essay closes with: 

My dreams these days are about my husband falling out of love with me. I wake up desperate and shaky, imploring him to confirm that he has not abandoned me while I’ve been asleep. “I love you,” I say. “Do you still love me?” I understand that this is my mind resting on the only real thing it knows outside of itself: love. Without it, life is just “doing time”. 

I read this book in just over an hour, but the impression it left upon me lasted for days. I was reminded of the effects COVID-19 has had on my own life, thinking of my own ‘short story.’

I thought about the wonderful little puppy I got, the engagement to the man I love, the many incredible books I’ve read and written about, the new connections I’ve made and the old ones that I’ve strengthened. 

I shared the stories from Intimations with friends over the phone, and even mailed a copy to a lost connection in another part of the world, our lives having become disconnected, and our bonds frayed by closed borders.

Photo by Dominique Nabokov for Penguin

Zadie Smith is the author of several novels including New York Times Bestseller Swing Time, New York Times Notable Book Feel Free, and NW, one of the New York Time’s Best Books of 2013, to name a few. 

She is also a tenured professor of fiction at the New York University and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. 

A regular contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, Smith was born in London, lived in Rome and New York for a period before settling back in London the past year with her husband and two children. 

Intimations is now available at Indigo and on Kobo. Check Penguin Random House Canada for a list of other retailers. 

All the author’s royalties from Intimations will go to charity. This edition’s benefits will go to:
The Equal Justice Initiative and the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund for New York