Thursday, September 18, 2008

On Beauty, Zadie Smith (book review)

Posted by lea at 5:26 PM
On Beauty, like many truly literary works for me, took a while to get into, and even longer before I figured out that the family was mixed-race, which is kinda important to know in order to understand the specific cultural foundation of the book. It was particularly interesting because I realised this is one of the first books I've read where so many of the characters are black - not that it's particularly important in the scheme of things - but it was a totally different world than I was used to reading about. And fascinating.

Cultural differences aside, the characters are real people, fleshed out and shown in all their flawed natural glory. Howard Belsey, the central character, is an English professor at a Massachusetts university, married to African-American wife Kiki, with whom he has three children. The relationship between Howard and Kiki is the maypole around which most of the threads of the story are wound, particularly Howard's affair with a close friend of the family, and his rivalry with Monty Kipps and its rippling effect on both families.

Ultimately, it's the foibles and flaws of the characters that really bring out the beauty of this book. The characters are etched beautifully - from their son Levi who likes to act like he's from the ghetto when in fact he's from a privileged background, to Carl, who actually is from the ghetto but would like nothing more than to belong to the campus culture of the Belseys and Kipps. Things are not perfect in this world - characters are betrayed, fail to reach their own unspoken expectations, fall into temptation, act without considering their true motives and learn to forgive. It's a book brimming with love for the people we actually are, not the people we want to be. For me, it was Kiki who actually brought the title home. It's through this full-figured, middle-aged woman and her open vulnerability, her love and her huge heart that we understand what real beauty is.

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