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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

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