Books Read in 2021 – 33. On Beauty – Zadie Smith

Genre: Black fiction, Literary fiction

Narrative Style: Third person from a number of different viewpoints, chronological

Rating: 3.5/5

Published: 2006

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: The Belseys and the Kipps don’t get on. They are both art scholars, both study Rembrandt and Monty Kipps got his book out first. When Jerome Belsey falls for Victoria (Vee) Kipps, the families are thrown together again and again. Howard Belsey has marriage trouble. His wife, Kiki, is also dissatisfied. Carlene Kipps is dying. The various offspring of the two families have various personal issues including finding an authentic identity (Levi) and championing the cause of academia (Zora). All of this is played out on the campus of Wellington University.

Time on shelf: I inherited this when my husband’s aunt died in 2014. In the meantime I read Swing Time which I didn’t really like and this put me off going back to Smith. (I had previously read White Teeth and The Autograph Man.)

I went back and forth on how to rate this one. It is well written (4 stars) and it covers issues of identity successfully (4 stars) but the characters didn’t grab me (3 stars) and the plot was slow and didn’t pull me in (3 stars). It was a bit of a slog at times. When I got to the end, all I felt was relief that it was over.

There can be no doubt that Smith can turn a phrase. This is very well written. It is also ambitious. It is based on Howard’s End by E. M. Forster which is not a book I’ve read. I have seen the film though and once I realised, it made sense. Very different families. A gift betrothed but not delivered. And, in fact, it made me feel a lot like when I have read Forster – a little like I must have missed a joke or maybe I’m just not quite clever enough to get it.

Part of the problem is that the characters weren’t very interesting to me – in fact, they were almost stereotypes. Howard Belsey is a white professor, married to a black woman who is not as thin as she used to be. He is floundering in his career and has recently had an affair with a fellow lecturer. He is terrible with technology. He ends up sleeping with Monty’s daughter. This seems a little like it could be a character arc in a John Updike novel. Kiki is little more than her race and her weight. Monty Kipps is a typical right wing, conservative Christian. And so on.

Similarly, the plot wasn’t particularly compelling. In fact, it often felt like the most interesting things happened off-page. I enjoyed the bequeathing of a painting by Carlene to Kiki which Monty tried to hide but even then, the court case that ensues happens elsewhere. Also, as I have previously mentioned. I’m not a massive fan of posh people or campus tales so this was on a loser from the start. I’m not sorry I read it but I’m not sure that I’ll read anymore Smith novels.

Books Read in 2015 46. The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith


Genre: Literary Fiction, Religion

Narrative Style: Third person largely from Alex’s perspective

Rating 4/5

Published: 2002AutographMan

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Alex Li-Tandem collects autographs for a living and is obsessed with Kitty Alexander. He is so desperate for her autograph that he writes to her every day. When, after a drunken binge, he finds he has her autograph everyone thinks he has faked it but the truth is much much stranger. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge.

Time on Shelf: About ten years. I bought this and White Teeth at the same time. I read White Teeth straightaway and loved it. I meant to read this not long after but other books got in the way.

This is an interesting book. It is interesting in a number of ways. It is about fame from the point of view of non-celebrity autograph men who hunt for memorabilia like vultures. It shows the fickle nature of the market where what counts is not how famous you were but how many times you signed your name. Alex is obsessed with getting Kitty’s autograph for just this reason. She rarely signed anything and so it would be a tremendous coup to have one.

The second way it is interesting is the way it talks about religion and Jewishness. Alex himself is half Jewish and it would seem that this is the reason that he splits everything into two camps – Jewishness or Goyishness. One of his best friends is a rabbi, another has found transcendence through his dope smoking. He is fully immersed in Jewish culture without ever being an actual part of it. I must admit that I don’t know a lot about Judaism (or any religion really) but I could understand Alex’s wish to keep his distance from it all and the way it made him feel uncomfortable.

Finally, this is a novel about death. At the very beginning, Alex’s father dies, a loss which Alex is still recovering from as an adult. His death permeates the whole story. Alongside it, is the idea of fame as an avoidance of death – your image and your things live on after you. Those who leave nothing in the way of autographs and so on, might as well be dead even before the event occurs. When Kitty’s death is mistakenly announced , Alex takes the opportunity to sell all his autographs while the price is high. Even Kitty, although annoyed at first, soon sees the monetary value.

The novel was funny as you might expect given Smith’s reputation as a writer of humour. There are some great gags such as the running joke of Alex constantly being thwarted by a group of Rabbis trying to get an improbably large piece of furniture into an unfeasibly small car. But the real strength of this novel is the description of Alex’s grief and his arrested development because of it. The reader can empathise with Alex’s pain and his difficulties in moving forward. It was touching without being sentimental and funny without being cruel. A very enjoyable read.