One of the greatest pleasures of my Sunday is the waking up at the crack of dawn. Perhaps it is sheer perversity but knowing that I have nowhere to go, nothing to do induces a ceratin pleasure in lying in and reading. Most often, it would be a book I began on Saturday. And a slightly hefty tome at that. For even after getting up, one has the pleasure of a lazy long morning to sit with a book and allow myself an uninterrupted read. Thus it happened that I finally picked up a much overdue big book waiting in my to read shelf.
In my advertising days, each time we made a campaign presentation, I often wished for a client as represented by an individual rather than a committee. While an individual could only be accused of being whimsical, with a committee you were condemned to the fact that the principle of lowest common factor often worked... its perhaps the hallmark of committees that mediocrity is so often saluted simply because it pleases all and demands nothing more. Anything that is singular and exceptional is often dismissed as being too lateral... Naturally with Zadies Smiths On Beauty, I went to it with a certain degree of skepticism, even more so knowing that the book had been on the Booker Short list for that year. The committee had approved. Oh hell, I thought.
You could accuse me of prejudice then. And serious prejudice too. For some years ago I had reviewed Zadie Smiths White Teeth. Much had been made of that book. Much has been made even more of its author. Salman Rushdie had blurbed it as a book with bite. Other reviewers taking their cues from Rushdie had gushed, oohed and aahed.
Zadie Smith is immensely talented. There was no doubt about that. Even by reading the first few paragraphs of White Teeth, I knew that. Here was a distinct voice. Here was a style that was full of verve and vigour. Here was a writer who would someday find her place among the greats. But it was not to be with White Teeth, for me, at least. The self-indulgent ramblings, the completely unnecessary meanderings, the cuteness (that reviewers labelled as precocious) which was fun to read in small doses became tedious.
So I came to On Beauty washed with a cardinal sin for a reviewer. Prejudgment. I first knew a reluctance to even begin reading the book. And as I read, I wasnt smitten. Not in the beginning... I looked at the pile of other books waiting to be read and wondered if I had a masochistic streak in me. But slowly the book began to charm. In an insidious fashion, it worked its way into me and I was lugging it from room to room grabbing it at every moment.
I could be accused of prejudice but I wouldnt allow myself to be held guilty of impetuosity, the other cardinal sin of a reviewer... I would read this book as it deserved to be read. With a slowness and with caution... (this wasnt the life story of the Texas axe murderers after all...) and with an enjoyment that was testament to the fact that with On Beauty, Zadie Smith is at the prime of her craft.
Howard Belsey is a middle-class white liberal Englishman teaching abroad at Wellington, a thinly disguised version of one of the Ivies. His wife, Kiki, an Afro-American is a warm, generous, competent wife, mother, and medical worker. The other half of the story is that of the Kipps family: Monty, stiff, wealthy ultra-conservative vocal Christian and Rembrandt scholar. His wife Carlene is always slightly out of focus, and thats the way she wants it. She wafts over all proceedings, never really connecting with anyone.
The two academics have long been rivals, detesting each others politics and disagreeing about Rembrandt. They are thrown into further conflict when their families collide. Jerome Belsey leaves Wellington to get away from the discovery of his fathers affair, lands on the Kipps doorstep, falls for Victoria and mistakes what he has going with her for love. Howard makes it worse by trying to fix it. Then, Kipps is granted a visiting professorship at Wellington and the whole family arrives in Massachusetts... This is the setting and I will absolve myself of the last cardinal sin of the reviewer. Namely reveal plot and endings and ruin the book for the reader.
Instead I would like to dwell on the marvellous perspicacity that Zadie Smith brings to her characters. Kiki, Zora, Levi and Monty being brilliant strokes, so much so one doesnt know which is the supreme of these characterisations... Perhaps the most important feature of the book, for me that is, is that while it may not stand upto the hype as you read on, it perches itself in your mind and so even days after, you catch yourself thinking about the book and some of its minutiae... Indelible, I would think. Need a book aspire for more