Book Review: On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Book - On Beauty by Zadie SmithI really enjoyed Zadie Smith’s debut novel (White Teeth), though I have forgotten most of the plot. I wasn’t sure what to expect with On Beauty, except perhaps more of the same insightful humour and character driven narrative. To be honest, it took the first 100 pages or so for me to really get into this book, but that’s probably because the cast of characters is large, and each one has their own say.   

The beginning sizzles with tension and unease, as Jerome Belsey (a young black American abroad for the first time) is drawn into the family of the man who shamed his father (Sir Monty Kipps, an academic living in London). Jerome ends up living there, getting to know this family and eventually falling in love with the daughter (Victoria). It is difficult to really like these characters at first. I certainly found it hard to identify with Jerome, Howard (his father) and Kiki (his mother). But Zadie Smith has a way of digging in, under the skin of her characters, so that we are gradually presented with their essence, and begin to understand how they think and feel.

In fact, the novel acts as a conscious postmodern homage to E.M. Forster’s epic – Howards End, echoing his themes of social inequality and cultural contrast. It centres around the complex relationship between two families (the Kipps family and the Belseys), introducing the added dimension of racial difference.

The book eventually reveals itself as far more than a philosophical, humorous take on mixed race academic family life. It is about aesthetics, about how people see themselves and how they see each other. Howard is an art history professor who detests realistic representation, and prefers abstraction. He is also a man who has made mistakes and, though he is revered by some, he is mocked by others. The underlying theme of the book is that things are not what they seem, on a scale that is both immense and intricate – as revealed through the eyes of each character in turn.

There are poets in this book too. Clare is an unusual figure – a determined liberal-minded poet and educator, intent on providing opportunities for those who need them most – something which makes her fellow academics uneasy. There is an ever-present tension in the novel, between contrasting political views, races and cultures, and a sexual tension too, as the plot centres around Howard’s unfaithfulness. There is also a subtle, continual interrogation of the notion of art, as the characters begin to question the purpose of studying subjects such as poetry and art history. The central question of the book is epitomised in the title – On Beauty – which is also the title of a poem written by Nick Laird (the author’s husband) posed in the novel as a poem written by one of the characters – Clare.

My favourite character is Levi, Howard’s youngest son, who seems to act the hardy teenager, drawn (for reasons he can’t quite fathom) towards the “pure” blackness of the local Haitian immigrants, desperately wanting to be one of them, yet ignorant of their hardships. I also liked Zora, Howard’s daughter, who is intelligent like her father, with a stubborn determination that borders on the hilarious, but a sensitivity and hidden insecurity that make her likeable.

There isn’t one protagonist in this novel – it is told through many voices and we get to see the academic, insular world of an East Coast American University from various perspectives. I think that’s why it took me so long to get into it, but it’s well worth persevering. The writing is thorough and detailed, managing to be both funny and deeply serious simultaneously, and it’s also a book that challenges your preconceptions.

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