Zadie Smith’s ‘On Beauty’ really does beg the question ‘can this woman do no wrong?!’ This is the third Smith novel I have read and every time she seems to completely capture the heart and soul of her characters. You can hate, love, pity and despair for each of them but the point is indifference isn’t a feeling up for grabs.
This is a story centred on the Belsey family, their life in the suburbs of New England and a long standing feud between two professors in the field of Art History. The Belsey family consists of Howard (a reference to ‘Howard’s End’, a novel by EM Forster that I have yet to investigate), his wife Kiki and their three very different children living their lives in and out of a university in the suburbs of Boston. It is a snap shot of a time where fifty seven year old Howard has been ‘indiscreet’ with one of their old friends, Claire, while his academic ‘nemesis’ takes up a position with in the same university as him. His eldest son Jerome has embraced Christianity, his daughter is throwing herself into academia and a potential soul destroying ‘project’ crush on a ‘brother’ from Boston, whilst his youngest son Levi struggles with his identity as a middle class and privileged black teenager.
Smith seems to open this family’s crises so that it plays out like a film swinging in and out of focus on individuals and their personal contentions.
While the story is solid it is not this that has kept me hooked for the last week, the character’s depth and personalities are what achieved this, including Howard’s hypocrisy, Zora’s tenacity and sheer stubbornness and Kiki’s beauty, presence and slightly bruised and very lost spirit that all add up to create a web that, in equal measures, made me root for and despise various members of this family and others found on the university campus.
A family like the Belsey’s, with such diversity, creates the perfect stage for the humour and heart that Smith really builds on. I was a little sad for it to end if I am honest.
The inclusion of Howard’s specific field of Art History and Zora’s interest in poetry gave this book an added dimension which I thought to be fascinating. More so is the fact that some of the poetry found in the book can be credited to the author’s husband, Nick Laird, and is done so heavily, in the author’s notes, the dedication and in the copyright notes.
Over all a great read, Zadie completely deserves the accolades she received for this modern take on an apparent Forster classic.