Not to Be Overlooked
Not To Be Overlooked introduces a variety of wonderful but lesser-known books to assist readers in finding their next great reads. The column covers non-fiction with reviews by Alicja (Intimations) and Emma (Square Haunting).
Intimations by Zadie Smith
Published by Penguin Books, August 2020
Zadie Smith is a new author for me, but it feels somehow fitting that the very first work I have read by her was a collection of six short essays written in the early months of the pandemic.
In less than one hundred pages, Intimations speaks personal truths which force the reader to look at the new reality we are all living in and ask incredibly hard questions. Told almost in snippets, Smith’s Intimations touches not only on the topics related to COVID-19, but also focuses on the community, particular individuals and fragments of life passing the author by.
Like many others in lockdown, the author was “confronted with the problem of life served neat, without distraction or adornment or superstructure” and “had almost no idea of what to do with it.” With many of our lives almost too extreme: busy, full of social interactions, working long hours and never having time to stay still, we suddenly came to a halt. Now, this unbelievable stillness has become a part of everyday life for many of us.
While, in Intimations, you can witness the early days of the pandemic and lockdown, reliving the fear and uncertainty, it’s interesting to read the account now – almost a year in. With the UK in the middle of the third national lockdown, Intimations remains relevant and allows you to delve deep into your own personal feelings on what’s happening in the world right now. Our lives have been “radically interrupted” in recent months and it’ll be a while before this crisis comes to an end.
What I liked the most about Intimations was that, despite discussing a lot of ideas clearly ingrained and related to the current crisis, it also offered thoughts on topics that should not be forgotten even now, and maybe especially now. Inequality, privilege and structural racism are all touched upon in this collection of essays. And while, inevitably, in Intimations they’re set against the backdrop of the pandemic, these are the issues we should be confronting now and not pushing away under the pretence that there’s a more immediate crisis outside our doors.
Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars by Francesca Wade
Published by Faber and Faber, 2020
“I like this London life…the street-sauntering and square-haunting.” Virginia Woolf, 1925.
Named after this Virginia Woolf quotation, Square Haunting tells the story of a London square – Mecklenburgh Square in Bloomsbury – through five famous women who spent the interwar period living there. Francesca Wade finds commonalities in each woman’s life – beyond their simply having spent a couple of years living in the same neighbourhood. Each woman, from the modernist poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), the detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers, classicist Jane Harrison, economic historian Eileen Power and, the most well-known, Virginia Woolf, finds in Mecklenburgh Square a place where she can be independent with “the right to talk, walk and write freely, to live invigorating lives.” Through the course of the book, Wade covers such personal matters as sexuality, suicides and stillbirths, alongside broader issues and experiences such as woman’s suffrage, air raids and the rise of nationalism.
Francesca Wade, like Virginia Woolf, highlights the importance of having “a room of one’s own,” but, even more than that, she stresses the importance of community. Although this is ostensibly about a small corner of Bloomsbury, Wade shows how these women’s lives and careers were fundamentally connected to others across the world. From the closed and conservative academic community of Cambridge, to provincial Sussex, to the exciting political movements of China and Russia, each woman made her mark on the wider world beyond Bloomsbury.
While I had previously come across H.D. and Virginia Woolf in my undergraduate studies, I did not know much about the other three women who make up this quintet of biographies. Wade renders the personalities of each woman vividly with fresh and well-researched insights. Although the connections between each woman were in reality quite slim, Wade makes a convincing case for their being in a kind of spiritual community with each other – each providing future generations of women a new path to follow. I found the chapter on Virginia Woolf particularly moving as Wade captures the tense, uncomfortable atmosphere of London at the start of the Second World War.
Each woman was a pioneer in her own field, choosing to live an unconventional life, making this an inspiring and illuminating read. Francesca Wade writes an immersive and intellectual literary history which should not be overlooked.