Book Review: On Beauty by Zadie Smith

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

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

Book Review: An Experiment In Love by Hilary Mantel

An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel

An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel

While I wait impatiently for the third and final installment of Hilary Mantel’s wonderful Thomas Cromwell trilogy, I decided to make a start on her back catalogue. Her French Revolution tome, Place Of Greater Safety, waits enticingly by my bed, but before I embark on that adventure, I decided to start with one of her slighter books, her 1995 novel, An Experiment In Love set closer to home and one of Zadie Smith’s choices in her fiction seminar at Columbia University.

Mantel is a master writer, who tackles huge subjects in a quiet and thoughtful way. In Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies she told small, human truths within a big story. In An Experiment In Love she gently tells big, social issues in a small story.

Set in the 1960s and early 70s, An Experiment In Love is the story of Carmel McBain’s childhood and teenage years. It oscillates between the working class Lancashire town she grew up in and the maze-like streets of London’s Bloomsbury where she finds herself aged 18, studying law at the University of London, living in a hall of residence with a bunch of home counties ‘Sophys’ and two of her school ‘friends’, the self-assured Julia, and Karina, the daughter of Eastern European immigrants who are in even more reduced circumstances than Carmel’s parents.

An Experiment In Love may not be a flag-waving political novel, but feminism and class are evident themes throughout the book. In the late 60s women were finally being educated to degree level en masse, and working class girls like Carmel began to break the class and gender barrier. But Carmel’s generation were struggling with their identities as intelligent, educated women. Carmel looks on, peering up from her law books, baffled as these clever girls playing housewife to their various ‘Rogers’ (Carmel’s name for the identikit boyfriends of these similarly non-distinguishable ‘middle class ‘Sophys’), ironing their shirts and dreaming of marriage and babies. These women aren’t leading the march for female equality, despite benefiting from feminism (something that still rings all too true these days).

It’s not all playing house. The lives of these girls, bar Carmel, who struggles to feed herself on her student grant, and Karina, whose stoicism hides a cruelty that even Carmel doesn’t see coming, are untouched by the vagaries of life before they came to university. The early days of adulthood bring with it tragedy and adversity.

This coming-of-age tale also touches on Carmel’s relationship with food, although she herself stresses that this is not a novel about anorexia, but about appetite. Even before she leaves her strict Catholic school and the confines of her mother and her cold house with its outside loo, Carmel needs cultural and political nourishment.

There are unmistakable whispers of Jeanette Winterson, both in the working class northern town and the tough angry mother, as well as in the dreamlike quality of her writing. Mantel may not veer into magic realism, but there’s an bewitching quality to her works. There are also shades of Anne Enright, another writer who is able to elevate the everyday to poetic truths.

Mantel’s characters remind me of ink-soled ghosts that tread lightly over the pages but leave an indelible mark on the story and the imagination. They are laid before us lightly, revealing themselves through Mantel’s words that don’t force feed a very different picture of the character than the one that is laid before the readers’ eyes.

An Experiment In Love may not have the gravitas and epic sweep of her two Booker Prize winning novels, but it’s an exquisite, perfectly drawn tale of women on the brink of a revolution that they don’t know they’re living through.

by Suzanne Elliott