Zadie Smith – On Beauty

Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps are academic art historians, constantly at war over their views on Rembrandt. Monty has a book coming out soon, and Howard has been procrastinating over his for years. Three months earlier his comments over an article by Monty have left him wide open to mockery

Even given the extreme poverty of the arguments offered, the whole would of course be a great deal more compelling if Belsey knew to which painting I was referring. In his letter he directs his attack at the Self-Portrait of 1629 that hangs in Munich. Unfortunately for him, I make it more than clear in my article that the painting under discussion is the Self-Portrait with Lace Collar of the same year, which hangs in the Hague.

How unbearable then that Howard’s oldest son Jerome is staying with the Kipps family and is not only drawn to their form of church-going Christianity but has fallen in love with Monty’s daughter Victoria. Howard goes rushing to Jerome to try to prevent this unforeseen turn of events but manages to make everything a great deal worse.

As well as being a great satire on life in academe, the story of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty revolves around two families: the Kipps and the Belseys. The Belseys are American, although the father Howard was born in Dalston, a dingy suburb of London. His wife Kiki is Afro-American. Sir Monty Kipps is a Caribbean born Englishman as is his wife, Carlene.

In the interwoven stories of the nine members of these families and their friends and rivals, Zadie Smith explores strongly opposed ideas of race, education, justice, religion, and politics.

Monty and his wife are devoted Christians but are not in favour of any special consideration being given to black people because of colour or social disadvantage. Monty Kipps is a successful man who uses the term ‘Coloured’ and is against affirmative action. The Belseys are anti religion and consider themselves more liberal and tolerant. Howard could be described as a ‘Left-wing idealogue’ but it doesn’t make him any less self-centred.

And we become drawn into the mistakes and betrayals that abound between the members of these families.

Monty Kipps gets a move from London to Wellington, the New England university town where the Belseys live and where Howard works. The Belsey children try to find themselves in different ways. Levi the youngest, tries to live a black life, to hide from his new ‘street’ friends that he lives in the well-heeled part of town. He becomes involved with dispossessed Haitian immigrants. Hip hop music fills his life. His sister Zora becomes active in university politics and brother Jerome tries to recover from his brief love affair with Victoria Kipps.

This book has many secrets; an unexpected friendship and a legacy concealed, (it is said to owe a great deal to Howard’s End in this regard) and inappropriate sexual pairings. I would have liked to know more about Monty’s upbringing, but that is not touched on.  There is, however, a wonderful description of Howard’s visit to his father. It has never gone well in the past; it doesn’t go well this time either.

Howard sighed and sat down on the green sofa, The moment his head connected with the velvet he felt like he’d been sitting here with Harry for these forty years, the both of them still tied up in the terrible incommunicable grief of Joan’s death. For they fell into the same patterns at once, as if Howard had never gone to university (against Harry’s advice), never left this piss-poor country, never married outside his colour and nation. He’d never gone anywhere or done anything. He was still a butcher’s son and it was still just the two of them, still making do, squabbling in a railway cottage in Dalston.

He tries to confide in his father about his fear that his marriage is finished. He weeps and his father reaches forward and pats his knee. Then he says

‘She found a black fella, I spose. It was always going to happen though. It’s in their nature.’

Although the book represents a year in the life of Howard Belsey, we spend time in the mind of each character and get a sense of what drives them. This makes it difficult to describe such a tightly woven tale, which has been described as having no plot. But there is a climax where certain issues are resolved, and the characters go on, in the way life goes on.

Kiki Belsey is the shining heart of the book. A warm loving, funny woman.  Here she is, reflecting on her ‘ enormous spellbinding bosom’

If she were white, maybe it would refer only to sex, but she was not. And so her chest gave off a mass of signals beyond her direct control: sassy, sisterly, predatory, motherly, threatening, comforting – it was a mirror-world she had stepped into in her mid forties, a strange fabulation of the person she believed she was. She could no longer be meek or shy. Her body had directed her to a new personality…And she had been such a tiny thing for years and years.

She is tested too far by her husband, but she is strong,  and the last scenes of the book seem to make it clear that love still exists between them.

Quite a wonderful book; absorbing in the way Dickens can be absorbing. After reading I had the vaguely head-achy feeling of having been in another world.

Most enjoyable and deserving of its Orange Prize in 2006.

My eleventh Great Book for this year. One more to go; Girl Woman Other by Bernadine Evaristo.

18 thoughts on “Zadie Smith – On Beauty

  1. What an interesting person Zadie Smith is! The Wikipedia biography contains this endearing (to me) description of her early Cambridge years: “Smith seems to have come to mutual agreement with the popular British comedy double act Mitchell and Webb that she just wasn’t funny, when all three were studying at Cambridge University in the 1990s and she auditioned for the Cambridge Footlights at a breakfast meeting of scrambled eggs. [I am entranced by a breakfast meeting of scrambled eggs.] This realisation came despite her father, Harvey, bathing the family in British comedy during their childhoods.” James Wood, critiquing her first novel in 2000, described it as “part of a contemporary genre of hysterical realism.” [] Smith took the critique and showed that Wood was onto something more than he understood, and that he actually complimented authors whose inquiries about people’s lives and complications made “both sides of the equation—brain and heart—present in their fiction.” []

    I love reading your reviews, Gert, because I end up in such unexpected places. I return now to working on my current review of a new book of tanka written collaboratively by three women, two English and one American rooted in Appalacihia, with a refreshing view of other parts of the world. Thanks —

    1. My dear Guy, you must be losing your faculties. I have been banging on the whole year about my project of reading one Great Book each month. Have even read Joyce’s Ulysses and Mann’s Dr Faustus.
      Next year, as I mentioned earlier, it’s Proust .
      And I did find the Elizabeth Berridge short story Time Lost, that you told me about.

  2. A lovely reminder of my favourite Zadie Smith. I remember reading it almost as soon as it came out, and while much of the detail escapes me now I do recall it being very enjoyable and witty. I’d love to see more from her in this vein.

  3. Thanks for the review, which reminded me of just how good Zadie Smith is! I read her debut, White Teeth, the year it was published. Since I liked it very much, I’m not quite sure why I drifted away and didn’t read any of her subsequent novels. I picked back up a few years ago with Swing Time, which I adored and then — drifted away again. So many books, etc.
    On Beauty sounds wonderful. I’ve a weakness for art history, which I studied formally, albeit at a rather low level, a few years ago. I also love satires on the academic life (was a big reader of David Lodge, back in the day). This one definitely gets added to Mount TBR!

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