HAMISH HAMILTON £16.99 (446p) £15.99 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Sharp shots in class war

As with Forster's Schlegels and Wilcoxes, the plot is driven by the enmities and attractions of two families: the liberal, mixed-race Belseys and black, conservative Kippses. Howard Belsey, a Dalston butcher's son, has been 10 years without tenure, his Against Rembrandt unfinished. He bans representational art from the house, hymns the rational, but doesn't always think with his brain. As his wife Kiki tells him, "Oh, I'm so sorry your dick offends your intellectual sensibilities... You should talk to your cock so the two of you are singing from the same hymn book."

Kiki is a Floridian African-American, generous in warmth and proportions. Of their children, Jerome opts for fellowship with Christ; Zora wields language "like an automatic weapon"; and Levi, with his inexplicable Brooklyn accent and "funky limp", idolises rappers and strives futilely for an essential blackness.

As first Jerome then Howard fall spellbound to Victoria, daughter of Howard's academic nemesis Sir Monty Kipps, Kiki befriends his Jamaican "stay-at-home Christian" wife, Carlene. As with the house in Howards End, a Haitian painting becomes a thwarted legacy between the women. Through the spoken-word poet Carl ("Keats witha knapsack"), a Leonard Bast figure whom the Soyinka Professor of African Literature employs as a hip-hop archivist, the novel skewers the college's liberal snobberies. While Howard and Monty are opponents in the "culture wars", squabbling over affirmative action or "hate speech" bans, when it comes to "inappropriate" sex, they prove comically alike.

The novel quotes Elaine Scarry that "a university is among the precious things that can be destroyed", and Smith salvages the institution she mocks. Levi thinks that "in universities, people forgot how to live". But, finding an obscure Haitian group in the world music section, he is moved to tears. Through Howard's growth, his silencing at last before the beauty of a Rembrandt, the novel affirms art over theory, life over intellect. As Kiki says, "Too much recording - try living."

Smith's ear is unerringly acute, charting accents that slide up and down class ladders, from the "sommink" of Howard's father to Boston ("Hah-vahd") vowels and transatlantic twangs. The humour is relentless and precise, with choice one-liners ("In Nigeria we weep at funerals - in Atlanta apparently they network"); while glorious moments of burlesque have a whiff of Lucky Jim. Howard cracks up with mirth when faced with glee clubs, the clicking, spinning choristers whose bell-like tones scream Old Boston money.

Yet the focus on the Belseys misses a chance to widen the "net of empathy", an achievement Smith has ascribed to Forster. We learn little of Carl, or the wild yet "breakable" Victoria, nor the ubiquitous, underpaid Haitians. As rappers they appear sloganeering ranters yet Kiki, with her faultless instincts, leaves a fortune to their solidarity group. While tilting at the insularity of academia, the novel limits insight into the characters outside its bounds.

In her 2003 lecture on "Forster's Ethical Style", Smith said that he had "expanded the comic novel's ethical space (while unbalancing its moral certainties) simply by letting more of life in". With her lucid perspective and implacable sense of satire, Smith has succeeded in stretching the English comic novel's net of empathy. But, as she no doubt realises, there is yet more of life to let in.

Maya Jaggi's anthology 'Swallows and Chameleons' will be published by Random House USA

Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
News
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea

film

In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops

film

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game