Have you ever read a novel that makes you feel absolutely certain it was written with you in mind? As if the author somehow possessed the ability to reach majestically across time and space to squeeze you gently on the shoulder to say this is for you.
That’s the way I felt this week, when I read Zadie Smith’s On Beauty.
Sadly, Zadie did not write On Beauty for me, though it often seemed that way. My reaction to this novel takes place on such an intensely personal level, I’m not even sure I’ll be able to write a coherent review.
This won’t prevent me from trying, however. Because I want to let you know how much I admire this book. I want to look you in the eyes as I press this book into your palms, like something precious.
As I explained at the end of last week’s review, because I’m chronically disorganised, I’ve left things a little too late, and the novel I’m planning to read for 1935 is still on its way to my doorstep. So, this week, I took On Beauty from the top of one of my many staggering piles of books and started to read.
Why On Beauty? When I read E. M. Forster’s Howards End last year, I knew almost immediately that it was one of the most inspiring, life-changing novels I’ve ever encountered. On Beauty is a modernisation of Howards End; it takes the basics of the novel’s plot and places them in an entirely new, modern context.
Yes, I know. It sounds ghastly. Like film adaptations, this is exactly the kind of thing I generally try and avoid. But I’ve heard so many lovely things about Zadie Smith lately, that my curiosity got the better of me.
This novel could have been a shambles, a literary travesty. Thankfully, it was quite the opposite…
by Zadie Smith
My University degree hangs on the wall of my study, though my name has since changed. After my three-year Arts degree, I still had no idea what to do with myself, so I went on to study for a fourth year. I specialised in Comparative Literature, which relies heavily on literary theory.
Literary theory, for the uninitiated, provides us with a number of different viewpoints through which to interpret works of literature. Personally, I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with theory.
All through my University career, there was one nagging thought at the back of my head; a deep, dark secret I couldn’t speak without being laughed out of the department: whatever happened to simply enjoying books?
I’m telling you all of this because that, for me, is the essence of On Beauty is really about. It’s about learning (or un-learning) to appreciate beauty for itself. On Beauty is an intense, funny novel about love, politics, art, family, race – and the way in which the things that connect us all sometimes drive us apart.
Right. If there’s anyone left reading, I’ll continue. I did warn you this review might lapse into incoherence…
The reason I told you about my experience with literary theory is because our main character, Howard Belsey, is a university professor in art theory. He lectures about art, but has completely lost the ability to connect with art. He’s banned all “representational art” from his home.
Howard is white, middle-aged and in trouble. The book he’s meant to be writing is lying in a stagnant pool of printouts on the floor of his study. His wife found out about the one-night stand he had a few months ago, and he’s still sleeping on the sofa. And, to make matters worse, as the novel opens, Howard’s eldest son has just sent him an e-mail from England announcing his engagement…to the daughter of his academic arch-rival, Monty Kipps.
While Howard forms the focal point of On Beauty, the rest of the beautifully dysfunctional Belsey family refuse to be relegated to the background. Jerome struggles with his faith in a family of atheists. Zora is intelligent, but insecure. Levi, with his baggy jeans and iPod is young, black and angry – and doesn’t want anything to do with his middle-class family.
That leaves Kiki, Howard’s wife. Overweight, but overwhelmingly beautiful, Kiki is an African American woman, married to a white academic – and perhaps the real star of this novel. When the Kipps family move into the neighbourhood, she begins an unlikely friendship with Carlene Kipps, the wife of her husband’s nemesis.
What stands out most about On Beauty is Zadie Smith’s amazing talent for creating characters. The Belsey family in particular are utterly triumphant creations; they’re a large part of what makes reading this novel such an intense experience. They’re crafted down to the finest detail, to sheer perfection. At 443 pages, On Beauty is quite a substantial novel, but it feels greater than the sum of its parts. It’s like a little world of its own. I tried to spend as long as I possibly could reading On Beauty, because I couldn’t bear the thought of having to say goodbye to the Belseys.
Okay, so they’re not always the most likeable characters. Howard in particular: he’s cheated on his wife, he’s awful at his job, and, worst of all, he doesn’t like Forster (gasp!). But there’s just something about him, as with all the Belseys – an enduring, essential humanity you just have to like. They’re messed up, but impossible to resist.
Smith, like Forster in Howards End, uses third-person narration to float between her characters, from the Belsey family to the Kipps family and in between. One chapter is narrated by one of Howard’s students, and allows us to see his character from an entirely different (and not incredibly flattering) perspective.
The dialogue? Spot on. Smith’s dialogue is so authentic, you can practically hear it in your head as you read. Each character has their own particular way of speaking. Kiki is warm and motherly (most of the time), Levi speaks the language of the streets. They swear. They rant. They YELL IN CAPITAL LETTERS. It’s absolutely glorious.
Really, there’s not a single thing I didn’t love about On Beauty. Not a single thing. Zadie Smith’s writing zings with truth, emotion, recognition. Like a satirist, she has a talent for sharp observation, but, for the most part, she uses it gently, with love. The result is warm and emotional and funny. Yes, funny. Actual laugh-out-loud-on-the-train funny. That’s something a book hasn’t made me do for a while.
As a homage to Howards End, On Beauty is a resounding success. But there’s no need to have known and loved Forster’s great novel to appreciate On Beauty. Smith’s novel stands on its own, proud and perfect; so much more than just a modernisation of another work of art – it’s a modern classic in its own right.
I’m not one to write lists of books. I’d never be able to sit down and write an all-time top ten of my favourite books. I just couldn’t do it. I’d explode with the stress.
But if someone made me – actually sat me down in front of a piece of paper and threatened to inflict actual physical pain on me if I didn’t write a list of my top ten favourite novels – then, On Beauty would feature in that list. Somewhere near Howards End, actually.
Official Book to the Future rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should you read it?
Don’t just read On Beauty; revel in it.
It crackles with genius, and, at the same time, it’s utterly readable.
In a word…