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Zadie Smith’s Dickensian characters constrain ‘The Fraud’

Despite thematic breadth, Smith’s newest novel lacks emotional depth

<p>Smith walks a fine line between traditional, elevated prose and a loss of personhood. Though her characters are historical figures, they fail to feel real.</p><p>Courtesy of David Shankbone / Wikimedia Commons </p>

Smith walks a fine line between traditional, elevated prose and a loss of personhood. Though her characters are historical figures, they fail to feel real.

Courtesy of David Shankbone / Wikimedia Commons 

Zadie Smith’s newest novel is somehow more British than any she’s written before. Beyond its setting in northwest London and frequent Cockney dialect, “The Fraud” — Smith’s first stab at historical fiction — is shaped by generations of distinctly English literature. 

The book follows William Harrison Ainsworth, a 19th-century writer who failed to reach the heights of his competitors, all of whom are also featured in the novel. But the story is told from the perspective of Eliza Touchet, Ainworth’s aging cousin and housekeeper. Encircling this subtle fictional biography are, in classic Smith fashion, several larger themes: colonialism, abolition, womanhood and the purpose of literature. 

The fraud in question, too, is a historical tale. Touchet becomes fascinated with the ongoing case of Sir Roger Tichborne, a man who claimed to be a long-lost heir to a wealthy family and developed a cult-like following. Touchet becomes enraptured by the fictionalized version of Andrew Bogle, a man formerly enslaved by the Tichborne family who supported the defendant’s case. After years of criticizing the moralizing and deceitful art form of the novel, Touchet begins writing her own about the captivating case.

There is much to be said for Smith’s work, which can —  like her past pursuits — be called a feat. Smith pulls together disparate strands of human experience into a cohesive, intense, comedic and engaging narrative. Her work is confident and daring and has often been compared to Dickens’s. Like Dickens, her characters contain a controversial “hysterical realism” that she has herself corroborated: They are heightened to a hyper-literary realm, transcending naturalness to serve the experience — and often enjoyment — of readers. 

“The Fraud” is consistent with this practice — its characters sometimes become caricatures. Even as they defy stereotypical boundaries, they repeat their characteristics as if instructed to perform as themselves. This establishes easily and quickly the world in which the book operates. The expectations, desires and auras of the characters are in action almost immediately. 

And yet, this simplicity can constrain. The dialogue is witty but sometimes stilted. At the height of drama, descriptions drag on for the sake of scene-setting. Smith walks a fine line between traditional, elevated prose and a loss of personhood. Though her characters are historical figures, they don’t feel real.

Smith’s characters rarely transcend the pages. Despite the excitement and profundity of the narrative, its readers are constantly aware of the book’s solid form. Readers are assaulted with Touchet’s theories about the purpose of literature while simultaneously conscious of the larger narrative’s existence. 

The novel’s 183 chapters, which stretch across eight volumes, enhance this consciousness. Just as tension folds or love begins, a page with a header appears, stepping in between the reader and the possibility of an encompassing narrative effect. These chapters shift in place and time, making it necessary to calculate and return to the age and positionality of the characters.

Perhaps Smith — who is a purposeful, skillful and beloved author — is aware of these stylistic and functional contradictions in her work. Perhaps it is even her goal: to emulate and critique classic 19th-century English literature. 

Whatever her intentions for “The Fraud,” Smith fails to captivate with narrative construction alone. Rather, it is the small moments of Smith’s voice that can be credited for illuminating her past success. On page 36, Smith hides a magical depiction of forbidden love, working masterfully within historical constraints. Volume five, chapter seven pushes stunningly against Touchet’s predisposed notions about Sarah, Ainsworth’s second wife. And of course, there is Smith’s distinguished humor — a whimsical banter woven excellently through the book’s pages.

“The Fraud” does not showcase Smith’s true talents. But luckily for readers, Smith is also comparable to Dickens in volume: she has plenty of previously published work that does.


Liliana Greyf

Liliana Greyf is a senior staff writer covering College Hill, Fox Point and the Jewelry District, and Brown's relationship with Providence. She is a sophomore studying Literary Arts and a proponent of most pickled vegetables.

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