Sometimes you read a writer who is so good, it is mildly depressing. Zadie Smith is one such writer. Only a year older than me, she has already published three novels: White Teeth (2000), The Autograph Man (2002) and On Beauty (2005) which won the Orange Prize in 2006.
Smith was just 21 when her first novel was sold (unfinished and based on only 80 pages) for an advance rumoured to be in the region of £250,000. When White Teeth was published a couple of years later it launched Smith as one of the most exciting new literary talents in the UK. I tried to read White Teeth a few years ago when I was living in London but I found, unusually for me, that I just couldn’t get into it. I’m fairly persistent with books and a very fast reader so I don’t tend to give up all that easily but for whatever reason White Teeth was one of those novels that lay gathering dust on my shelves with only 100 pages read.
I bought On Beauty just after Christmas and started it a couple of weeks ago. It is the story of two families, the Belseys and the Kippses. The Belsey family consists of university professor Howard, a white Englishman, his African-American wife Kiki, and their children Jerome, Zora and Levi, living in a fictional university town outside of Boston. Monty Kipps, is a Trinidadian man living in Britain with his wife Carlene and children Victoria and Michael. The novel explores the relationships between the two families as they become increasingly intertwined over a period of a few years. Smith based On Beauty on Howard’s End by E.M. Forster and has called it an homage to the classic novel.
On Beauty is masterfully written, instantly engaging and very funny in parts. The characters are well drawn and recognisable and I particularly loved Kiki Belsey, the matriarch of the Belsey family. Her feminist principles, love for her children and her unshakeable core of strength give the book its warm heart. Smith’s novel is sprawling, taking in academia, modern multicultural society, race, culture wars, family and relationships, art and music. But at no point does it feel that the subject matter is about to escape the author’s hands, or about to turn into a political polemic. Smith is in control and obviously enjoying the writing process, which makes for a page turning entertaining read.