In a recent article on authors under 40, Time magazine had this to say about Zadie Smith:
we also get Zadie Smith (On Beauty), who at 30 is probably her generation's consensus No. 1 seed,
So, when I was picking what books to read on vacation I decided to read On Beauty, which my mother had read and given to me some months ago. At the time Mom said that she didn't like it.
Well, my review is mixed. And I checked with Mom to see if there was any overlap in our reviews, and there was partially.
In her acknowledgements, she writes, "It should be obvious from the first line that this is a novel inspired by a love of E. M. Forster, to whom all my fiction is indebted, one way or the other. This time I wanted to repay the debt with hommage." The result is a novel based upon the story of Howards End. It is an interesting hommage, but she is not strictly stuck to Forster's plot and characters, just setting them in a new context. No, there are characters, situations, story-lines, and issues that are not a part of Forster's great novel, but the broad strokes are here. And even some specific scenes are quite closely adapted from Forster. I found this device interesting, if not always completely satisfying. I couldn't help but consider the novel to be derivative in places, but she had already acknowledged that it would be.
Smith's language is not as beautiful as that of Naipaul (clearly another influence of hers) that I had also read on vacation, because her language is much more that of the people. It is full of slang and popular culture. I think she is an interesting writer to read, though I never had a moment of falling in love with the way she had crafted a sentence. Her ability to do low brow language even bothered me in one particular place -- a sex scene between an older man and a young woman. The scene read like cheap porn. . . . So, I just went back to re-read that scene and this time I was surprised by it and noticed something that I did not notice before. It is the young woman whose language sounds like porn, as if this is all she knows about sex. The older man's thoughts are much more sophisticated. I take back my criticism of this scene, it is very well written.
The strength of Smith's novel is that her characters all take different positions on the important issues of race, culture, art, and discourse. It is not completely clear which position is Smith's (though Kiki is the most sympathetic character). I really enjoyed most of these characters. And watching them react with one another is quite fun.
I'm not certain that the very end works. But the more I have been thinking about this book as I was writing this review, the more intrigued I am by it. I'd love to have a discussion of it if anyone has read it and is also interested.
(Note: Yesterday I did buy her other novel White Teeth)