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Book Review of Zadie Smith's The Fraud

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The Fraud by Zadie Smith is a mind-bending journey that left me both impressed and perplexed. Smith’s exploration of historical fiction, where real and fictional characters coexist, adds an extra layer of complexity to the narrative. The central character, William Ainsworth, a forgotten writer contemporary to Charles Dickens, has his life story shared by Eliza Touchet, his housekeeper, cousin, and sometimes lover. Their unconventional relationship, marked by moments of masters and maids and the use of whips, introduces a layer of both amusement and astonishment. The complexity deepens as Eliza, when facing destitution after her husband’s departure, had earlier fallen in love with Mrs. Ainsworth, whilst William was abroad.

As The Fraud progresses, the intricate interplay between real and fictional elements intensifies. Navigating the landscape of historical fiction, where real individuals like Dickens and Thackeray coexist with fictional character portraits makes for an unusual read. Prominent figures play substantial minor roles and are criticized for making societal comments about not only Victorian England but also our present-day world. To attempt to unravel the book’s complexities, I listened to Zadie Smith’s interviews, where she connects the narrative to contemporary issues like populism and celebrity trials. I found her incisive commentary, particularly in relation to her criticism of Dickens, added depth to my understanding of the novel’s themes. I do have a feeling, though, that Zadie Smith may have found her work, at least in some part, equally as perplexing as I did.

The novel weaves through the changing landscape of the 1800s, forcing readers to confront the contradictions of those claiming to support the poor while benefiting from systems of oppression. For example, through the lens of Eliza Touchet’s viewpoint, Smith offers a profound feminist interpretation of life in the 1800s, addressing issues of racism, hypocrisy, and societal injustices.

Smith’s ability to blend humor, intelligence, and insight is evident throughout. This is apparent in the second strand of the novel which explores the Tichborn Trial. Ainsworth’s second wife – a seduced younger maid, and a lover of the common people, though happy to marry upwards – becomes obsessed with the Tichborne trial. This was a real historical trial where Arthur Orton presented himself as Sir Roger Tichborne and thus entitled to his inheritance. His claim is ludicrous, but yet the people support back street butcher Orton and want him to have his say.

A steadfast, honest witness claiming the authenticity of Roger Tichborne is Boyle, a freed Jamaican slave. This becomes tricky for both the reader and Mrs Touchet as it seems impossible that what Boyle says is true, yet he seems completely honest. What is to be a fraud? Amidst the intricate web of relationships and historical events, the novel skillfully incorporates contemporary opinions on the abolitionist movement, adding another layer of complexity. Eliza, for instance, grapples with the moral dilemma of accepting money tied to the cotton trade, rejecting funds derived from a source she deems unethical. However, the irony lies in her indirect reliance on the cotton trade for her livelihood, reflecting the inherent difficulties and contradictions woven into the fabric of societal values.

My own favorite part of Zadie Smith’s novel is a quote in a short chapter towards the end of the book, where Mrs Touchet shares a comment about liberal Britain and how people go abroad to do their real living: “Nothing real happened in England. Only dinner parties and boarding schools and bankruptcies.” I’m not sure why, but it made me laugh out loud. The book left me intellectually stimulated, but I’m now in need of a different type of read for a mental break. (Completely unrelated but I’m thinking I’ll revisit Matthew Perry’s Friends Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing – as a family of Friends lovers his death was a shock to us all.)

Back to this review, Zadie Smith’s brilliance is undeniable, and The Fraud is a testament to her prowess in tackling complex ideas that linger in the mind long after the last page.

 Book Club Questions: on The Fraud by Zadie Smith

  1. Ainsworth wrote over forty novels but is a relatively obscure author. There’s a mention of the literary circle as everyone kind of lining each other’s pockets and that being how authors gain fame and notoriety. Do you think this phenomenon still exists in today’s literary world?
  2. The first Mrs. Ainsworth returns home to live with her parents and seems to fade away into death. Why do you think this happens?
  3. Mrs. Touchet had one hundred pounds annually, entitled to her due to her estranged husband having no one else to leave it to. Why do you think she didn’t spend it? Discuss the themes being explored here.
  4. The novel emphasizes Mrs. Touchet’s love for walking. Why do you think this detail is significant?
  5. During the concert, Henry invites Mrs. Touchet to take a post-concert walk, but she feels like a ‘third wheel’ when joined by Henry and one of the performers. What do you think causes this feeling, and what themes is Zadie Smith exploring in this scene? Discuss.
  6. Bogle is criticized by some as being two-dimensional or underdeveloped. Do you agree with this assessment?
  7. Do you think that Bogle genuinely believes that Orton is Lord Roger Tichborne?
  8. Were you familiar with the Tichborne case before reading the novel? What insights do you think Zadie Smith is offering through her portrayal of this trial?
  9. The Fraud is structured in eight sections, akin to Dickens’s novels, with short chapters often ending on cliffhangers. Why do you think Zadie Smith chose this structure, and what other aspects of her narrative style caught your attention?
  10. Is Ainsworth a sympathetic character? Discuss.
  11. The Fraud delves into a multitude of issues with a wide reach and distinctive narrative style. Do you think it attempts to cover too much ground? Share your opinions.
  12. Explore how Zadie Smith illustrates the hypocrisy and prejudice in Victorian society. How applicable do you think these themes are to our present society?
  13. How do you feel about real people being incorporated into a fictional context? Does the blending of fiction and non-fiction lines pose any challenges for you? Discuss.
  14. Were you surprised by Mrs. Touchet’s revelation of writing a novel called The Fraud at the end? Explore the title’s meaning and its significance.
  15. Zadie Smith mentions finding links in the novel to the populism of Trump and the media trial of OJ Simpson being easy to make. What does she mean by this, and how do you interpret these connections in relation to the novel?

 Book Club Questions: on The Fraud (for if you haven’t read the book)

  1. Is Historical Fiction a genre you enjoy? Share your thoughts on why or why not.
  2. If you haven’t read the book, share your favorite book about Victorian England and why it resonates with you.
  3. The Title The Fraud can be interpreted in many ways? How important to you is a book’s title in influencing whether you will choose to read it or not? Discuss.
  4. Zadie Smith said she’d never write historical fiction and she would never mention Dickens. She has now done both. How likely are you to make absolute statements and then go on to change your mind?
  5. Ainsworth in The Fraud criticizes George Eliot’s stories for being just about people. Mrs. Touchet disagrees. Have you read George Eliot, and if so, which is your favorite book of hers and why?
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