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Zadie Smith: V6 Bodley’s Court, King’s

Novelist Zadie Smith joins History student Romeo Liyan to explore the “luxurious” surroundings where she started her award-winning debut.

- 4 minute read
View out window down to bridge

Award-winning novelist Zadie Smith (King’s 1994) and first-year History student Romeo Liyan both light on the same word to describe V6, Bodley’s Court: “luxurious”. They have a point. Tucked away at the top of a winding spiral staircase, with its mullioned windows, high ceilings and (arguably) the best view in town, it’s the archetypal Cambridge room. And all the more beautiful for being a world away from where they grew up.

“It’s a very special room for me, because I’d never had my own room before,” says Liyan. “I lived in a one-bedroom flat in Croydon with my mum, my brother and my little dog, and I shared a bedroom with my brother.” Smith, famously a north London native – her first bestselling novel White Teeth is set there – agrees. “It was twice the size of my bedroom at home. And very different from the room I shared with my brother when we lived in a council flat.”

She made the most of it. “The College allowed me to stay through the holidays. I lied to my mother and told her that College was all year round. She didn’t know the difference.” Liyan nods. “I had to leave home a few months before I came here, so I was couch-surfing and temporarily homeless for a while,” he says. “I was worried about reaching out, but when I did, the College were so supportive.”

The room was a fresh start for Smith, too, she admits, in a rather more prosaic way. “A mouse died behind the skirting board in my previous room, and I never bothered to do anything about it. I was infamous for having the room that stank. So this room was a big step up because it didn’t smell like a dying mouse…”

Zadie Smith and Romeo Liyan

They make a brief foray into the bedroom before settling down to identifying which bits of furniture still survive from Smith’s era. Smith stands at the desk by the window which looks out over the lawns and river. “That tree is spectacular in summer. It’s all pink. This is where I started White Teeth. Well, I don’t know how long the current desk has been there, but it was very like this one.”

The squishy sofa certainly wasn’t there: the hairy carpet is a maybe. The stone fireplace, of course, has been in situ since time immemorial, with the mantelpiece now crammed with Liyan’s keepsakes. From the photo commemorating his time as a ball boy at Wimbledon, you’d expect Liyan to be a tennis fan. His tastes are a little more extreme, however: he’s into bouldering and rock climbing. “I do it about five or six times a week. And yes, I know Cambridge is pretty flat! There are centres where you do it. But I can’t wait to start travelling and climbing with all my friends.”

Smith wanted to “sing and dance” in her first term. “But I chickened out and did nothing else at all. Just a lot of reading and a lot of drinking.” Both agree that finding the right balance of work and play is tough. “In my first term, there was so much I wanted to do outside of work,” says Liyan. “So this term I decided I’ll go to every lecture. I thought attendance was a bit arbitrary last term, but it turns out that it definitely wasn’t. I do love history: I love trying to dissect it all.

“In my childhood and early teens, I was just very fixated on what I wanted to happen,” says Liyan. “I wanted to go to this school, this university. Now, I want to detach from that and just enjoy myself.” And while there were plenty of emotional moments in V6, says Smith, everything fell into place in the end. “I was heartbroken because I wanted to do graduate work, but because I failed my Part Ones, I couldn’t do that,” she remembers. “But I remember very well walking out of dinner one night and telling my supervisor I was writing a novel. He was like: ‘Well, that’s a pointless thing to do, but good luck to you.’ Things might feel like disasters, but they’re not.”

Zadie Smith’s first historical novel, The Fraud, is out now. Romeo Liyan is preparing for the end of his first year.

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