"On Beauty": Where to begin? At "Howards End"
Seattle Times book critic
by Zadie Smith
The Penguin Press, 446 pp., $25.95
The first sentence of Zadie Smith's new novel — "One may as well begin with Jerome's e-mails to his father" — brazenly telegraphs what she's up to.
What we have here is "Howards End: The Remake," right down to an update of the 1910 literary classic's memorable opening line ("One may as well begin with Helen's letters to her sister").
Such naked homage seems a little risky at first. Yet "On Beauty," a nominee for this year's Man Booker Prize, turns out to be as sly and inventive a recasting of E.M. Forster's masterpiece as one could wish. British writer Smith ("White Teeth") takes liberties with the older book's plot about a disputed legacy. But she wisely keeps intact its key ingredient: the damaging dynamic at play between two families whose differing temperaments and values cause them to collide and connect in a painfully awkward manner.
Some scenes in "On Beauty" have exact counterparts in "Howards End." Elsewhere, Smith lets her fancy fly in directions Forster could never have anticipated. Both her families are black or of mixed race. The action, instead of being confined to England, plays out on both sides of the Atlantic. And the legacy in dispute doesn't concern a piece of real estate, but a ...
But that would be giving too much away.
In one corner we have 57-year-old Howard Belsey, a white English art historian of liberal bent, teaching at Boston-area Wellington College, where he specializes in iconoclastic dismantlings of Rembrandt. His wife Kiki is black, Florida-born, not especially intellectual, warm and generous, but nobody's fool. Their three children are meditative Jerome (a recent Christian convert), crusader-for-justice Zora and would-be "homey" Levi. Their household is hectic, profane, knocked off-kilter by Howard's recent marital infidelity, yet essentially loving in character.
In the other corner we have London-based Sir Monty Kipps, a rich Christian conservative of Trinidadian background. A director of various church charities, Monty is anti-gay, anti-Affirmative Action and far more eloquent than Howard in driving his points home. He, too, is a Rembrandt specialist, coming at the Dutch master's work in a more traditional way. His wife Carlene is kindly if eccentric. Their two children are straight-arrow Michael and dangerously gorgeous Victoria. For the reader, the emotional temperature of the Kipps' household is far more difficult to read than that of the Belseys'.
The trouble between the two families starts with Jerome's chance stay with the Kipps in London. There he falls in love, first with the whole family and their seemingly unostentatious, faith-based togetherness, and then with Victoria herself.
The love affair fizzles. But contact between the two families resumes when Sir Monty, to Howard's disgust, arrives as a guest lecturer at Wellington (one of his topics: "Taking the 'Liberal' Out of Liberal Arts").
Wives Kiki and Carlene soon forge an unexpected friendship, despite the feud between their husbands. When a young, poor, gifted black outsider (the counterpart to Leonard Bast from the Forster novel) drifts into pitfall-filled contact with both families, the stage is set — for academic teapot tempests, liberal-conservative showdowns, more sexual transgressions and some telling glimpses of just how many kinds of "black" there can be on both sides of the Atlantic.
Smith has a grand time hooking up the players in her big cast of characters in every combination possible. Her homage is mainly to Forster, but there are nods to Iris Murdoch, too, whose smarts and flair for farcical drama Smith shares.
The book's paeans to London's Hampstead Heath, Kensal Green Cemetery and the parade of faces to be seen on the streets of Cricklewood read like a love song to the British capital. The American detail is almost as good — an impressive leap for Smith to have made.
Best of all, Smith's satirical volleys have a profoundly buoyant sympathy to them. At different points, many of the characters in "On Beauty" behave deplorably — yet Smith always sees them in the round, never letting you lose sight of what demons or delusions might be spurring them on, making their behavior make sense to them.
The result is a novel that savvily illuminates the times we're living in. It also leaves you feeling there's almost nothing beyond the scope of this gifted young writer.Michael Upchurch: email@example.com.
He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998 and has published four novels.
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company