- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 5, 2005

LONDON - She is an internationally acclaimed writer, but no one stares as the lean young woman, head swathed in a turban of striking sand-colored cotton, strides on long legs through the streets of northern London on a brisk, sun-filled day.

That’s just fine with Zadie Smith, whose new book, “On Beauty,” is climbing best-seller lists and is among the last six books competing for Britain’s prestigious Man Booker Prize this year.

Miss Smith, 29, is at home in Queen’s Park’s vibrant tangle of streets dotted with outdoor cafes and grocery shops; she grew up here, and this urban stew informs, inspires, even inhabits her writing.

Flopping into a squashy leather sofa in a trendy wine bar, Miss Smith confides that fame sometimes makes her uneasy.

“Writing is not like being a pop star, because many people don’t really read,” she says. “It’s excruciating to be looked at. It’s an empty feeling, like something has gone before you and is taking your place.”

Although she doesn’t regard herself as an easy interview — “I’m no good at it” — she is open, funny and relaxed during a conversation that canters from her recent meeting with her hero, John Updike — “it was like meeting Shakespeare” — to her need to find a new home for her elderly father.

The product of a Jamaican mother and a British father, she has the languid grace of someone who spent years honing her dancing. Her answers are delivered with a sense of self-deprecation commendable in someone with such a high-octane mind.

An astute observer with a keen ear for dialogue and accent, she follows the authorly maxim to “write about what you know.”

Her first book, “White Teeth” — a smash comic novel about two families’ assimilation in Britain — was based in multicultural northern London. “On Beauty” is set in the fictional New England town of Wellington. Miss Smith recently taught at Harvard University.

“On Beauty” is her most mature and wide-ranging novel to date, and it has been welcomed as a return to form after “Autograph Man,” a rangy, less coherent work about an autograph collector who forges his idol’s signature.

In the acknowledgments, Miss Smith states that the book is an homage to “Howards End,” E.M. Forster’s great Edwardian novel about the clash of two great families. In Miss Smith’s novel, the liberal, postmodern, mixed-race Belseys and the Kippses, a clan of religious black conservatives, stand in for Mr. Forster’s white Schlegel and Wilcox families. Mr. Forster’s opening line, “One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister,” is retooled as, “One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father.”

Where in “Howards End” Mrs. Wilcox wills a country house to Mrs. Schlegel, the gift that passes between families in “On Beauty” is a Haitian painting. Mr. Forster’s beautifully described Beethoven concert becomes a performance of Mozart’s Requiem on Boston Common; where Mr. Forster detects elephants and goblins in the notes, Miss Smith finds monkeys and mermaids.

Miss Smith admits taking a gamble in being so clearly and avowedly derivative, but she is unshaken by the critic who dismissed “On Beauty” as a “gaudy respray.”

“If you disapprove of the principle, well, fine,” she says. “I’m not upset by criticism — it’s the book, not me, that they are criticizing.”

“On Beauty” fizzes with debate about academic responsibility, religion, the family, freedom of speech and notions of beauty and art, although Miss Smith herself remains wryly detached. The touch is light, the humor gentle, and the novel is peopled with a thoroughly modern cast of hip-hop youths, Haitian refugees, prowling academics and religious zealots.

Miss Smith’s characters, like Mr. Forster’s, have besetting moral obsessions that prevent them from becoming truly rounded, and therefore they are difficult to engage.

“I can only write about things I love,” Miss Smith says. “All my characters have some good in them, and I think there’s hope even for Howard.”

Miss Smith allows her characters to argue beguilingly despite their sometimes outlandish views — even Monty, the politically incorrect head of the Kipps family who wants “to take the liberal out of liberal arts,” makes some well-observed points.

She finds families intriguing: “Every family has a mythology about itself, things the members accept about the family. I’m interested in when that begins to break down, when some of the members refuse to accept the mythology,” Miss Smith says.

One who does just that is Levi, the Belseys’ 15-year-old son, who adopts a ghetto accent and a rolling gait in a bid for some of the street cred enjoyed by his friends from Wellington’s poorer black neighborhoods.

For John Sutherland, a professor of English language and literature at University College London and chairman of the Man Booker judges, “On Beauty” has confirmed Miss Smith “as a leader of a new generation of British fiction writers.”

“She is a fresh voice. She is always trying to genuflect to the tradition of the English novel, but she is also genuinely original, particularly in her description of the cultural mix,” he says. “With ‘On Beauty,’ she is in the tradition of English fiction, but what she has written is an American novel.

“It is hard to think of another writer between 20 and 30 who is as accomplished as she is.”

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