On Beauty – Andy and Zadie catch up for the first time in a while

August 4, 2013

Eleven years, actually. My copy of Zadie Smith’s second novel, The Autograph Man, was a review copy and has a publisher’s embargo stamp in it specifying September 16, 2002 as the release date. So it’s roughly 11 years since I read that. I’d read White Teeth a few years earlier, not long after it came out. And I bought On Beauty soon after its publication in 2005 but it’s sat on my shelves these eight years since unread. I’ve pulled it out occasionally and thought about having a crack but it’s always ended up being replaced – on the shelves, and by something else. Until last month.

OnBeautyOn Beauty is touted as the story of two families but it’s really only the story of one family, the Belseys, and their interactions with a world that includes another family in particular, the Kipps. The Belseys are a fascinating bunch – Howard, an ascetic academic of aesthetics, leftie, secular, English, white, a wandering eye; married to Kiki, not as well educated as her husband, more appreciative of beauty, leftish, secularish, black, American, obese. Having spent some time in the UK they now live in a suburb of Boston called Wellington with their three children – Jerome, the eldest, at university, recent convert to Christianity, bit of a naif; Zora, serious case of middle-child syndrome, also university age, probably the least likable of the Belseys; and Levi, 15ish, somewhat disengaged from family life, immersing himself in a black street culture that’s alien to everything he’s ever known.

The Kipps, on the other hand, are just a bunch of hypocritical right-wing culturally conservative Christian nutjobs, presented for the most part (and understandably so) with much less complexity than the Belseys. The exception to that rule is Carlene, wife of the quite revolting Monty, mother of the cardboard cutout Michael and the rather more complex Victoria. Kiki and Carlene develop a slightly fractious, quite tentative friendship that has the makings of something wonderful. it’s referred to in some discussions of the book as its emotional core; I disagree, but it’s a thread of Smith’s story that is beautifully woven into the whole.

Smith tips her hat to E.M. Forster in her opening acknowledgements, and her first line is a slightly rewritten lift of the opening line of Howard’s End. I can see the debt, but I’m not sure that On Beauty can legitimately be regarded as a rewriting of Forster’s novel, as some critics claim, and with its gallery of misfits, rogues and grotesques looks more like a Dickens novel to me. In fact I’ve not bothered giving you a synopsis of the plot because it is so gloriously rambling and ramshackle it’s not really possible. Infidelity, unrequited love, intellectual rivalry, academic politics, painting, poetry, rap, this side of the Atlantic, that side of the Atlantic, envy of those both above and below in the socio-economic hierarchy, Mozart, Rembrandt, Tupac Shakur…

On Beauty is “a great read”, in the best sense of that horribly overused description. Like a good Dickens novel it will make you laugh, it will make you sad, it will enlighten you and annoy you. Most importantly it will – for the most part – make you believe in this world. These characters, the Belseys especially, are utterly convincing creations. You can feel for Howard even as you vehemently disagree with his ideas on art and his wife and his family, you can sympathise with Jerome even if his religious conviction seems a bit weird and alienating. Zora is not particularly likable but Kiki is utterly adorable, as is Levi, although in very different ways. Kiki is occasionally unconvincing in her dealings with her children – her anger and sternness seem confected, although perhaps this is deliberate.

I’m not sure Zadie Smith is the great writer she was hailed as after the publication of White Teeth and, perhaps, of On Beauty, with a slight dip in respect for The Autograph Man. I remember enjoying The Autograph Man but I remember nothing about it, whereas I remember plenty about White Teeth – although that may well have something to do with the great BBC adaptation. On Beauty is funny and moving and utterly engaging but I’m not sure the writing itself deserves some of the accolades it receives  “Hugely impressive”? Maybe not. Impressive, and well worth reading? Absolutely.

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