On Beauty by Zadie Smith
It may have been a few years since I read White Teeth, but I remembered enough about Zadie Smith’s writing that I was excited to get stuck into On Beauty after downloading onto my kindle. I had heard a lot about Smith’s NW, but not much about On Beauty so I didn’t know exactly what to expect from the plot, but I knew I could be confident that there would be engaging writing, full characters, and thought-provoking themes. On Beauty definitely reached those expectations and more, and this was a novel I thoroughly enjoyed not only reading, but thinking about a lot over the following days.
On Beauty is a novel with lots and lots of layers. There were so many different themes that it was almost overwhelming trying to think through them all; maybe, with a different author, I would have commented that the narrative was too overstuffed with these themes. However, Smith’s great strength in tying all these themes together is in her characters. Even the most minor feels full of life and can be used in surprising ways to intertwine the big thematic moments with smaller, but still as engaging, revelations; every single character has a part to play in the action of the narrative. All the characters are flawed, to greater or lesser extents, but all the characters are fascinating and engaging.
As the title suggests, one major theme of the novel is beauty or, more accurately, the societal standards for what beauty is and what it represents. This theme is explored in very different ways through a selection of characters, asking questions of how age, race, gender, and class change the way that we view beauty. Almost all of the characters get a full description of their physical appearance, as well as the implications of how they are viewed by society as a result. After Howard’s first admission of infidelity, one of the things Kiki finds the most painful is that it was with Claire, someone who is considered traditionally beautiful in the company they keep: she is thin, white, and petite, all the things that Kiki is not. In contrast to Kiki’s struggle against society’s view of her as not traditionally beautiful, Victoria struggles with the sexual expectations society assigns to her as a young woman who is considered beautiful. Providing a gendered contrast to this is Carl, someone who is considered beautiful by almost every character because of what he represents more than who he actually is or how he looks.
Smith also uses this novel to critique the elitism and hypocrisy of academia. The tension between Monty Kipps and Howard Belsey is set up right from the very opening of the novel: one is extremely conservative, the other extremely liberal. Their rivalry drives many of the central conflicts of the narrative. Yet, as the narrative reaches its resolution, both are shown to be hypocrites and worse: they have both taken advantage of vulnerable female students and slept with them. In addition to this hypocrisy, the elitism of academia is clearly shown through the debate surrounding the ‘discretionary students’ at the university.
As one would expect from a Smith novel, racial identity is also a strong theme throughout On Beauty. The central family of the Belseys is a mixed-race family living in a mainly white area and socialising mainly with white academics. Within the family itself, there is an undercurrent of undiscussed racial tensions as Howard’s attempts to ignore the problem undermine Kiki’s increasing feeling of isolation from her own community. Her emotional moments towards the end of the novel, in which she explains how unwelcome she feels in Howard’s white academic world and how she feels that she has lost her racial identity as a result of her loyalty to him, are incredibly poignant and moving.
There is so much more I could say about each of these themes, and the writing in general. I’m still thinking about the incredible detail with which Smith explores all these themes and more; writing this has made me want to reread this novel in order to discover more that I missed the first time. This is definitely a novel I would recommend: a fascinating narrative, with engaging characters, and incredible depth. If you haven’t ever read Smith before, I actually think On Beauty would be a great place to start and get a feel for her writing.