On Beauty – Zadie Smith

On Beauty by Zadie SmithI’d been meaning to read this for a while. In hardback, sat on our bookshelves, it taunted me. “I’m a Zadie Smith novel – full of intelligence, long sentences and esoteric concepts that you’ll never get round to reading.”

After three years of owning the book, I finally got my head into the right frame of mind to read On Beauty.

So what’s it about? Well, it features two families, who are effectively at war. The Kipps – headed up by Monty, the British Caribbean right-wing, reactionary academic, feted for his strident views – and the Belseys – with Howard at the helm, a white liberal academic who married a black American woman and settled in New England, at a prestigious university.

The families both possess high ideals but low morals and the unravelling of the various feuds and flashpoints make up the meat of the novel.

Zadie Smith doesn’t hide her intelligence and the writing is full of bewilderingly long sentences, packed with intricate clauses and vocabulary that, at times, even the well-read would find dizzying.

The characters are well-rounded and beautifully fleshed out and the descriptions of the settings give the mind little work to do to imagine where they are.

So much for the good points. Unfortunately, while Smith is performing pyrotechnics with her wordplay, she often forgets actually to move the plot along.

Many of the characters also come across as thoroughly unlikeable and don’t encourage you to want to continue reading.

In fact, there were times while reading this, that it felt like wading through treacle. Humour is sparse, plot is patchy and the overall point of the novel felt impossible to grasp.

Compared to White Teeth, which was a wonderfully vibrant exploration of race, internationally, but also very locally, On Beauty feels as if Smith is running out of ideas and on empty.


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