Friday, 11 September 2009

Zadie Smith

On Beauty by Zadie Smith is another from the list of 14 Orange Prize winners (that's the Wiki page, which had a straightforward list of winners, you can also visit the Orange Prize site for more varied info) of which I have now read six. I have copies of 'Fugitive Pieces' and 'Half a Yellow Sun' somewhere in the house too.
Maybe this was another case of very slight disappointment. I read 'White Teeth' some time ago and enjoyed it so much. I found the characters to be so vivid and engaging and it has this wonderfully complex plot, and looking at lots of social issues, but in a real way as part of the characters lives, not self-consciously as can sometimes be the case. So then I started 'Autograph Man' and did not get into it at all and gave up (not something I do very often). This book was different from both. It is set mainly in the world of American academia, with all that that entails. In some small way it reminded me of a more up-to-date History Man, because sexual indiscretion is an undercurrent in the main relationships. Two professors, Kipps and Belsey, on opposing sides of an academic/political debate, find their families abruptly more closely entwined than either is happy with. The story centres on the Belsey family and Howard in particular, as he goes through what is essentially a mid-life crisis. I liked Kiki, the mum who struggles to help her children make it from adolescence to adulthood without too much trauma. It is a story partly about the process of acknowledging this process of separation. But it is also very much about young people developing their sense of identity, a process further confused by the fact that the Belsey children are mixed race and are not sure which identity they are looking for. Jerome, the eldest, has become a Christian, almost as a means to escape his family and is working for his dad's arch enemy, Professor Kipps. Zora has entered wholeheartedly into her father's academic world, and spends her time fighting for the rights of underprivileged, but talented, teenagers to have free access to courses at the College. Levi, the youngest, is moving the other direction and becomes involved with a Haitian political group who are trying to raise the issue of US (i.e. white, western, middle class) exploitation and suppression of their culture. This is symbolised by Kipps, and his vast collection of Haitian art, one of which they symbolically 'steal' back. The Kipps children are similarly struggling, having been bought up in a conservative Christian household, as opposed to the 'bleeding-heart' liberal Belseys.
What the book seemed to me to be talking about is whether the whole 'higher education' college system is inherently exclusive, being only in reality accessible to middle class white kids, but also whether it is desirable for minority groups to participate in such a system when it is blatantly prejudiced against them and does not recognise their culture and value systems. I could be over-reading this but I think the collapse of Howard and Kiki's relationship and the revelations about Kipps are supposed to be symbolic of hypocritical facade of these supposedly cultured and educated people. In that Zadie Smith is plainly being quite critical of the academic environment it was strange that she seemed to enjoy showing off all her research about Rembrandt (art history being the shared subject of the two professors) and the whole college system is obviously something she is very familiar and comfortable with (though maybe you can only judge such an environment properly from the inside?)
So quite a subtle book, lots of issues going on there, many of them not familiar to me, or outside my direct experience. It is set in America rather than Britain and I think that it reminded me that culturally we are often poles apart from them, despite a shared language. Beautifully written, quite hard work in places. Sometimes I had trouble figuring out the motivation of some of the characters, and they mostly tended to be rather self-obsessed, but they are well drawn and very real people. A very intellectual book, a little self-consciously so, but that is not necessarily bad thing. Good reading.

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