I have frequently claimed to anyone that cared to ask that Zadie Smith is one of my favourite authors. But it struck me recently that this claim is a little overstated; I’ve only read two of her novels, White Teeth and The Autograph Man. And I didn’t much like The Autograph Man.
Sure, it’s a 25 per cent hit rate (I also claim J.G. Ballard as one of my top 10 authors despite having only read about a quarter of his output, and loved about a fifth), but when I suggest Zadie Smith is one of my favourite authors, what I’m actually saying is she’s one of my favourite-people-who-I-don’t-know, a well-known person who I’d invite to one of those imaginary dinner parties we’re always being asked to attend.
Eager to boost my Smith claims beyond pretend dinner parties, I was keen to read her most recent, NW. But a copy of On Beauty had sat accusingly on my bookshelf for so long that, I discovered, it contains references within its dusty covers that are now consigned to the technological dustbin (there’s a plot device featuring a Discman) and it looked like it needed some love and attention.
Which is exactly what most of the characters in Smith’s transatlantic family saga need. Ostensibly, On Beauty is about two warring families, or rather warring fathers. On the left is white Brit Howard Belsey and on the right is African-American Sir Monty Kipps, two art history academics embroiled in a bitter war of words about Rembrandt and politics, a rivalry that crosses the Atlantic and embroils both their families.
But the relationship between Monty and Howard is set to mute for most of the novel, their disagreement simply a catalyst to drive the novel on its way. This isn’t a book about two grown men squabbling; it’s about everything but, covering marriage, race, class, friendship, morals, first love, betrayal and politics across two continents.
The transatlantic conceit – the story skips between London and Wellington, a well-to-do town near Boston – is perhaps a little clunky, although I love Smith’s descriptions of our city so, for me, it was a niggle with an upside. And skipping back to England half way through the novel was a convenient way of introducing Howard’s working-class pre-academic roots and giving him a much needed framework.
There’s an impressive cast of characters, but the real stars of the book are Howard and his brood. The Belseys are a sweary, liberal, chaotic mixed race family; there’s Howard who treats life and those around him like one big joke who for all his huge brains (or perhaps because of them) makes some appalling decisions. His three children – upstanding Christian (against his liberal Dad’s wishes) Jerome; strong-willed, determined if rather unpoetic Zora (a nice little nod to one of Smith’s favourite books, Their Eyes Were Watching God) and Levi, with his box-fresh trainers and street talk who is frankly adorable, even when – especially when – he’s trying to play the bad guy. Watching over them with love and exasperation is Howard’s wife; big, beautiful, black Kiki, who looks on with patient eyes and a determined mind. It’s her unlikely friendship with Monty Kipps’ sick wife, the brittle in every way Carlene, that sparks a chain of events that knocks the family’s life off kilter – and more than one person off their high-horse.
Like all the best books, On Beauty doesn’t have a plot-line turned up to 11; loads happens while simultaneously nothing happens. There’s a death, people have sex with the wrong people, teenagers fall in love and in with the wrong crowd, there are affairs and break-ups and the odd Powerpoint presentation.
Perhaps it was the academic setting, but On Beauty had something of the Lucky Jim about it, Howard a kind of Jim Dixon with even worse judgement. Smith’s novel is always teetering on the brink of silliness, threatening to descend into the ridiculous, but Smith, like Kinglsey Amis, is too good a writer to let the story or the characters tip into farce or caricature.
Smith definitely deserves to lorded as a favourite author. She’s a dexterous writer who can deftly skip tenses and perspectives, flip from characters’ external thoughts to their internal monologues with a flick of her pen. But it’s her dialogue, her ear for language, her understanding of human beings that makes Zadie Smith such a wonderful writer to read and, I imagine, a great dinner party guest.
by Suzanne Elliott