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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 June 2006, 07:41 GMT 08:41 UK
Review: Zadie Smith's On Beauty
By Caroline Briggs
BBC News entertainment reporter

Cover of Zadie Smith's novel On Beauty
Orange judges hailed On Beauty as a "literary tour de force"
The plot of On Beauty, Zadie Smith acknowledges, is a homage to EM Forster's Howard's End, establishing itself in the opening line: "One may as well begin with Jerome's emails to his father."

And like the EM Forster classic, the book concerns itself with the conflict between families of polarised sensibilities.

But instead of England at the turn-of-the-century, On Beauty is set in turn-of-the-millennium New England, and the fictional University of Wellington.

It centres on the Belsey family. Head of the family is Howard, a 57-year-old liberal academic, and his wife Kiki, to whom he has been married for 30 years.

Howard is white and English, while Kiki is a black woman from Florida who claims not to be an intellectual.

Together they have three children, Jerome, 20, university student Zora, 19, and 16-year-old Levi, who is rebelling against his middle-class upbringing by becoming more "street".

But their family life is reeling from the news that Howard embarked on a "predictable" middle-aged affair with fellow lecturer and family friend, poet Claire Malcolm.

Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith has been nominated for the Orange Prize three times
The peace is further shattered by the arrival in Wellington of Monty Kipps and his family from London.

The Caribbean-born conservative is a professional rival of Howard's, while Jerome was left heartbroken after falling in a love with the beautiful Kipps daughter, Victoria, the previous year.

Kiki, however, strikes up a friendship with his ailing wife, Carlene.

Meanwhile, Zora meets a young street poet, Carl, from the Boston street and becomes intent on bringing him in to their middle-class fold, while Levi spends his time searching for his black identity with a crowd of Haitian immigrants.

The plot weaves its way through the trials of academic and family life - the petty squabbles, the repercussions of betrayal, love and the rules of society with clever use of language and dialogue.

At 443 pages, On Beauty is a little long-winded.

Some of the speech or description feels superfluous, and may have benefited from more careful editing.

However, the novel is original, accomplished, witty, with beautifully evocative language in parts, confirming Smith as one of the UK's young shining lights in literature.

Zadie Smith scoops Orange Prize
06 Jun 06 |  Entertainment
Orange tips new queens of fiction
25 Apr 06 |  Entertainment
Orange book prize hopefuls named
06 Mar 06 |  Entertainment
Smith's On Beauty wins book award
06 Feb 06 |  Entertainment
Smith wins Whitbread novel prize
03 Jan 06 |  Entertainment


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