The sweetness of revenge fiction | Review of ‘The Fraud’ by Zadie Smith

The author resembles a candy-floss vendor spinning filaments of truth and horror

Updated - September 08, 2023 07:42 pm IST

Published - September 08, 2023 07:36 pm IST

Zadie Smith can be described as the Nigella Lawson of revenge fiction.

Zadie Smith can be described as the Nigella Lawson of revenge fiction. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Zadie Smith stands in the middle of 19th century Victorian London creating a gigantic edifice of candy-floss from the literary amusements of the past. In The Fraud, her sixth novel of identity and race relations, she resembles a candy-floss vendor spinning filaments of truth and horror from a centrifugal machine that could be defined as the dark sticky cauldron of Empire.

The genre of velvet-lined novels that hide within them the lessons learnt from their colonial inheritance, now condemned as a defilement to both perpetrator and victim, might be termed revenge fiction. And Smith could be described as the Nigella Lawson of revenge fiction.

When she debuted with her novel White Teeth in 2000, Smith showcased the contradictions of the immigrant experience, caught between worlds even while plumbing the depths of a murky imperial past, with shark-like brilliance. She offers bite-sized nuggets of information that do not fade into anecdotage as they so easily might, because of her tight control over the material. In that sense, she is a proselytiser. She needs to lift the lid from the hypocritical conventions of polite society, while also pretending to be the hostess presiding over the same dinner table.

World of Dickens and Thackeray

It may explain why Smith has chosen to immerse herself so thoroughly in the literary and Fleet Street world of Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, who are perhaps the best known of the literati of the time. We also meet in passing, George Eliot, the feminist icon who defied the conventional while being conventional, Edward Chapman, publisher, a very louche Lady Blessington, who presides over a literary salon accessorised by a resident Frenchman, the Count d’Orsay, and others, who have placed their bets on how soon she will boast of her connection to the dear departed Lord Byron.

Central to all these well-known names however is William Ainsworth, once a popular literary figure, who faded into the shadows of the giants whom he befriended and entertained at his table. They appear in various segments of the novel while he fades from view. Not, however, from memory as he appears here as a benign figure, surrounded by an entourage of wives and daughters, amongst which, a cousin by marriage, Eliza Touchet, is by far the most significant.

Equally noteworthy are Smith’s depictions of the illustrator Cruikshank, the vituperative profiles in Punch magazine and of the tabloid hysteria of the Victorian age in the wake of the riveting Roger Tichborne case — a real-life courtroom drama from the 1860s and 70s. Standing by the side as a guarantor of authenticity is a black man named Arthur Bogle, a native of the British-owned island of Jamaica famous for its sugar plantations and rum.

Harrowing darkness

Eliza Touchet does not hesitate to refer to him as a negro and is equally adept at describing the exact texture and degree of darkness of Bogle and his young son. They have apparently been commandeered to appear as witnesses in court, maybe to add a little colour? Is Sir Roger the fraud of the title? Are we meant to trace any resemblance to current members of the political aristocracy that preys upon the far more intransigent members of the public? Smith lets us roll around these crumb-coated bits of history at our own pace.

There is, however, a heart of the most harrowing darkness in the midst of this return to Victorian society with all its perceived glamour. The segment in which Smith lays bare the sickness — real, as in the case of those Jamaican inhabitants who, far from their native homelands, fall prey to diseases such as Yawsinsanity, and the most appalling corporal punishments inflicted upon them by their supervisors — overshadows the rest of her enticing nuggets. It burns.

And yet, standing upright as a spindle in this whirligig of time and events is Eliza Touchet. Hers is the healing touch of memory. For that alone we must celebrate Zadie Smith.

The Fraud
Zadie Smith
Hamish Hamilton

The reviewer is a Chennai-based critic and cultural commentator.

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