I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
Howard Belsey is an Englishman abroad, an academic teaching in Wellington, a college town in New England. Married young, thirty years later he is struggling to revive his love for his African American wife Kiki. Meanwhile, his three teenage children— Jerome, Zora and Levi—are each seeking the passions, ideals and commitments that will guide them through their own lives.
"After Howard has a disastrous affair with a colleague, his sensitive older son, Jerome, escapes to England for the holidays. In London he defies everything the Belseys represent when he goes to work for Trinidadian right-wing academic and pundit, Monty Kipps. Taken in by the Kipps family for the summer, Jerome falls for Monty's beautiful, capricious daughter, Victoria." But this short-lived romance has long-lasting consequences, drawing these very different families into each other's lives. As Kiki develops a friendship with Mrs. Kipps, and Howard and Monty do battle on different sides of the culture war, hot-headed Zora brings a handsome young man from the Boston streets into their midst whom she is determined to draw into the fold of the black middle class - but at what price?
I requested this book from our public library because I have obtained a ticket to her Zadie Smith speak at our University in February 2016. I think it will be a lively evening!
Zadie Smith is a shrewd observer of the human condition. And she takes a good hard poke at the idea that knowledge and art can be somehow value-neutral, that we can ignore the purpose of the person who created a piece of art (I think that’s post-modernism?).
One of her main characters, Howard Belsey, is a college professor who teaches art history. But Howard is completely unnerved by expressions of firm belief and strong emotion. His lectures are virtually incomprehensible in their refusal to discuss the beauty of the works, the purpose of the artist, or response of the viewer. The students of the college describe the various college courses in terms of tomatoes—a history course becomes Tomatoes 1867-1967, for example. Howard’s student, Victoria, nails his reluctance to grant value to love, beauty, or truth when she describes his art history class to him:
But your class—your class is a cult classic. Your class is all about never ever saying I like the tomato…Because tomatoes are not there to be liked…Your tomatoes have nothing to do with love or truth. They’re not fallacies. They’re just these pretty pointless tomatoes that people for totally selfish reasons of their own, have attached cultural—I should say nutritional--weight to.
The irony is that an art history professor is completely unable to recognize or appreciate the beauty in art or in his own life. He is disconnected from his family and out of touch with other college faculty. He has had an affair with a woman about whom he cares nothing (and she, if possible, cares even less about him) out of sheer thoughtlessness. Because he has espoused this value-free existence (absolutely no religion, no Christmas, etc.) he is seemingly unable to resist doing the wrong thing, frequently. (Mind you, the religious characters fare no better in Smith’s tale).
Howard’s part of the story is just that—only a part. Smith also gives us a window into his wife, Kiki’s, world as well as their children, Jerome, Zora and Levi. All of them have to find what they will and will not live with, what they will do with their lives. Kiki must decide whither her marriage will go, Zora whether she will follow in her father’s academic footsteps, Levi whether he identifies with the middle class or with Haitian immigrants. Of all of the family, Jerome seems to be the clearest of purpose, although things certainly don’t begin that way.
Smith writes gorgeously. Her insights into our interpersonal communication difficulties are right on the money. Because the Belsey family are mixed-race and middle-class, she is able to explore race and class issues effectively as well. An excellent novel and I am very much looking forward to hearing Ms. Smith speak in February.