On ‘On Beauty’
Having never read Zadie Smith’s ‘White Teeth’ or ‘Autograph Man’ – put off by the ubiquitous trendiness of the former and ambivalent reviews for the latter – I read On Beauty without the baggage of preconception and felt it to be a strong piece of work. Zadie Smith is clearly a considerable talent although I got the impression that she finds it difficult to control and harness her creative energies into a coherent whole. The final analysis of On Beauty rests heavily on whether you feel the author brings together the tangential strands of narrative and large cast of characters to a meaningful conclusion, which I think she just about achieves.
At the centre of the book is the disintegration of the Howard and Kiki’s marriage – he a white, British, liberal academic and she a larger-than-life African-American mother. The lives of their three children also are explored at varying levels of depth, along with a number of more peripheral characters. But it is Kiki and Howard that compel the novel forward, anchoring and orientating the reader. The English / American contrast is recurrent throughout the book, although the majority of the book takes place in the US, and the writer has a great ear for dialogue in all its colloquial forms. Middle-class black America may be under-represented in literature, and Smith confronts this refreshingly.
Most of the characters are credible and engaging, even if they aren’t apparently very likeable people. It is modern and sassy but brutal and evocative, while the ending – beautifully offbeat and dream-like – feels like a closure of sorts even if it refuses to offer resolution for the characters. I think while Zadie Smith continues to enjoy so much publicity there will always be those who angrily reject her work. However, if you approach this book with an open mind you should find there is much to enjoy.