by Zadie Smith
Fans of WHITE TEETH may be a bit disappointed with Zadie Smith’s latest novel. ON BEAUTY is not such a rollicking good read as her first book but what it lacks in pace it makes up for in characterisation and depth.
The novel lays out its credentials from the first sentence:
‘One may as well begin with Jerome’s emails to his father.’
and goes on to draw much of its narrative from the plot of E M Forster’s HOWARD’S END. Smith’s story revolves, as does Forster’s, around two families who, although from a similar strata of society, have opposing political and moral viewpoints. Set mainly at Wellington, a fictitious Ivy League university, ON BEAUTY explores the rivalry between two art-historians: Howard Belsey – English, inclusive, liberal– and the ultra conservative, Christian, Monty Kipps. Despite being African American, Kipps refers to ‘the coloured man’ and wages a campaign on the campus against affirmative action. Inevitably, the two families get involved and the ensuing tensions provide great potential for high drama as well as comic situations. Some episodes are very funny indeed. Zadie Smith is very good at human relationships, family dynamics specifically, and some of her scenes are painfully convincing.
By referring to Howard’s End, the author creates parallels and counterpoints between Edwardian England and the US east coast of the early twenty first century. Although, whereas Forster’s novel ends with the symbolic death of Leonard Blast under a pile of books, Howard’s ‘end’ in ON BEAUTY is not only a hugely optimistic redemption of his character but an affirmation of the value of love and beauty.
This homage to Forster does beg comparison with someone who was a master of economy in his writing. In just a few spare subtle sentences he could illustrate the British class system in all its iniquity and complexity and it makes Smith seem a bit clunky and heavy-handed by contrast. That said, ON BEAUTY is a very accomplished novel, a good read and provides plenty to consider about love, fidelity, identity and the nature of beauty.
ON BEAUTY won the Orange Prize for fiction, 2006.