On Beauty by Zadie Smith

At last - Howard gets his End away

Scarlett Thomas
Sunday 11 September 2005 00:00

The Belseys live in the university town of Wellington, just outside Boston. Howard, the father, is a white Englishman who manages to be a Rembrandt scholar without liking Rembrandt, and who has recently had an affair. Kiki, the mother, is a 250lb black woman with a "big lovely laugh" who was conventionally beautiful once and wanted to be Malcolm X's assistant, but settled for a respectable job in hospital administration. Howard's post-structuralism allows him to hate almost everything, especially Monty Kipps; Kiki seems determined to befriend his wife, Carlene Kipps, the "ideal 'stay-at-home' Christian Mom". There are three Belsey children: Zora, an intellectually precocious Wellington student; Jerome, who has taken to wearing a cross around his neck; and Levi, who walks with a "funky limp", likes hip-hop and only reads three books a year.

The emails that begin the narrative tell of Jerome's short-lived love affair with the Kipps family, with whom he stays while on an internship in London. "It's very cool to be able to pray without someone in your family coming into the room and (a) passing wind (b) shouting (c) analysing the 'phoney metaphysics' of prayer (d) singing loudly (e) laughing." After Jerome is deflowered by the Kipps' daughter, Victoria, he's sent home broken-hearted. And when Monty Kipps accepts a post at Wellington, the two families are due to collide several more times. How will Jerome cope with the presence of Victoria? What will come of Howard's feud with Monty Kipps? Will Monty be allowed to give a series of lectures intended to undermine liberal arts institutions? And what will he make of the Wellington tradition of allowing disadvantaged local people to bypass the meritocratic university system and take a poetry class without paying for it?

Smith is particularly good at pulling off intricate, logical plots of the sort in which each person has a secret, each person eventually tells the secret, and then everyone - or at least everyone who seems to deserve it - lives happily ever after. This one takes a lot of set up. It takes a good 250 pages to begin to understand why Howard has his affairs, what exactly Kiki finds appealing about the Kipps philosophy and how far Zora will go to get a place in a class she wants to take at Wellington. We also meet the poetry tutor Claire, the "spoken-word" street poet Carl, the Dean of Humanities, and a seemingly random student from Howard's class. We watch Levi progress from a kind of political crawling stage to something resembling toddling. The only perspectives we never experience are those of the Kipps family, and, of course, the various black cleaners, cab-drivers and catering staff who lurk on the edges of this narrative like ghosts that only Levi can see.

With On Beauty, Smith demonstrates that she can write a book that is just as readable and addictive as White Teeth (you will finish it at 3am, regardless of when you start reading it). We've always known that she can describe London with all the verve of Martin Amis - without the dog-shit, women who want to be murdered and narrators taken to strange ethnography - and she does that again here, albeit only for a few chapters. And it also turns out that she can write sex scenes with all the awkward brilliance of Philip Roth. Much of her dialogue, and all of her descriptions, are near-perfect. But, in the same way that Jerome falls for the Kipps family, Smith seems to have fallen in love with the Belseys, and what begins as a satire eventually dissolves into something that may be more satisfying in narrative terms but is less fulfilling thematically. By the end, all the ghosts of working-class life have simply drifted away, and the middle-class family prevails.

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