Sunday, October 31, 2010

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

On the face of things the two families featured in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty are fairly functional. The Belsey family lives in New England, near Boston to be more precise. Howard is English and white. Kiki, the wife, is from Florida and is black. There are three intensely sophisticated progeny, Jerome, Levi and Zora. The Kipps family, meanwhile, lives in Old England in a less than fashionable area of north London. Monty and Carlene are black British with Caribbean roots. Their children are the delectable Victoria and an older, cool, already achieving son, who figures little in the tale. Both husbands are academics. Howard is a specialist on art history and is an arch-liberal. His rival, Monty, is almost rabidly neo-conservative. They have feuded for some time, academically speaking, despite their families being on good enough terms to want to stay with one another.

When the story opens, Jerome Belsey is in London and has fallen for the obvious charms of Victoria Kipps and is suggesting engagement. Now wouldn’t that complicate things! As the book progresses we learn that these apparent domestic heavens are less perfect than they appear. The two fathers are not as dedicated to the promotion of domestic harmony as they at first seem. Romances bud and blossom amongst and between the younger members of the plot. 

There are inter-generational liaisons of various kinds. There is also a heightened professional rivalry between Howard and Monty. There ensues an ideological battle that intensifies when Monty joins Howard’s US college on an invitation. Monty tries to stir things up and, as ever, liberals are his prime target. Howard effectively assists by rising to take the bait, trying, as liberals sometimes do, to equalise before he has gone behind. Zora, Howard’s daughter, wants to enrol in a poetry class. There are no places, however, because the tutor – a poet who has a special relationship with Howard – takes in talented candidates who are not actually on the college roll. 

A campaign is launched and Zora, her dad and Monty are in the thick of the argument. Things come to a head when a poor lad from the rough end of town is invited to join the class because of his unique gift for rap. An accommodation must be found. Victoria, Monty’s daughter also figures on campus and she manages to complicate most things simply by looking the way she does. Basically the lives of these families begin to unravel as tensions pull at the frayed ends of their lives. 

Zadie Smith writes with great poignancy and irony. She is particularly successful in characterising the generational gaps, and she does this without ever sounding clich├ęd or patronising. The sex that simmers throughout just beneath the surface occasionally bubbles through and, when it does, it generally makes quite a mess. In theory, all these people want to do the right thing by and for others, but when opportunities arise, they usually can’t resist the pull of blatant self-interest. They all profess the long view, but in reality they all live for the moment, and that is usually passing. On Beauty is a convincing and moving portrait of modern family life. Zadie Smith consistently resists the temptation to pitch the populist against the elitist. Her characters merely live, and the ups and downs they all suffer are eventually no more than their individual and collective experience.