Howard and Kiki Besley are the fraught couple at the centre of Zadie Smith’s new novel. Claire Malcolm, poet and interloper in their 30-year marriage, tries to make sense of them: “He was bookish, she was not; he was theoretical, she political. She called a rose a rose. He called it an accumulation of cultural and biological constructions circulating around mutually attracting binary poles of nature/artifice.” On Beauty is too populated with vivid characters, contradictory ideas, transitory emotional states and hard-won truths to succumb to the didactic potential of its title. What we get instead is an amusing and poignant novel in which Smith stakes a formidable claim for fiction as the best form of capturing life’s messiness.
In doing so she acknowledges a clear debt to E.M. Forster – and to Howard’s End in particular. But it would be a mistake to describe this book as an exercise in homage. As she proved in White Teeth, Smith is fascinated with the contemporary moment and its polyglot possibilities. As much as the eternal questions (what is love, what is art, what is family) preoccupy her, so do the current ones, beginning with the relevance of the university. As a campus novel based around a fictional elite uni – Wellington, a casually disguised Harvard – On Beauty makes for good, acerbic fun. Smith swoops in and out of classrooms, faculty meetings and frat parties with a keen sense of the ridiculous. After the hit-and-miss detour that was The Autograph Man, she has produced a stunning novel that is exactly the sum of its finely rendered parts.
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