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Book club: On Beauty, by Zadie Smith

03 January 2020

Anna Macham reflects on Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, a tribute to E. M. Forster’s Howards End

ZADIE SMITH’s third novel, On Beauty (2005), is a campus novel whose plot centres on an academic rivalry between two families, the Belseys and the Kippses. Unlike her subsequent two novels, NW (2012) and Swing Time (2016), On Beauty is a comedy, in the tradition of campus novels. Howard Belsey — intellectual, liberal, atheist, and Monty Kipps — a popular academic who is conservative and Christian — are both Rembrandt scholars, but Howard detests Monty almost as much as he detests Rembrandt, the myth of whose supposed “genius” he has dedicated his career to trying to disprove.

When the Kippses move to Wellington, the fictional East Coast university that Smith bases on Harvard, the stage is set for all kinds of dramas. As well as comedy value, Smith draws many serious themes out of the sequence of events that ensues. The novel takes its inspiration from E. M. Forster’s celebrated Howard’s End (1910), and one element of this is the unlikely friendship that briefly develops between the academics’ wives, Kiki Belsey and Carlene Kipps.

A central dilemma of On Beauty is whether Kiki will divorce Howard, who, in a mid-life crisis, has had an affair. In this context, Carlene’s friendship is an unexpected gift. Like their husbands, they are opposites politically and spiritually, but they turn out to have things in common — they are both black in a largely white, elite neighbourhood, and have children of similar ages — and, unlike most other relationships in the book, their friendship is trusting and honest. In a book full of affairs and infidelities, there is something real about it: in the presence of her mysterious friend, Kiki “once more found herself speaking the truth”.

Religion is an important theme, not just in this novel but elsewhere in Smith’s works, from the fundamentalist characters of her debut novel White Teeth (2000) to the aesthetic love that the main character, Leah, a non-churchgoer, has in NW for Willesden parish church: “The smell of the censer . . . the gold sunburst, cold marble floor”. Christianity, in On Beauty, tends towards the conservative kind.

But, as Kiki, a liberal feminist, discovers, Carlene’s faith is more complex than it seems. While, at first glance, Carlene is a stereotype of submissive Christian femininity, she transcends the letter of her religion to support a gay friend of the family: “‘Life must come first over the Book,” she tells Kiki, “Otherwise, what is the Book for?’”

In a world in which we often conduct our conversations in echo chambers, the depiction of genuine difference and closeness in the friendship between Kiki and Carlene is one of the compelling aspects of this book. Religion can be hypocritical, or weird, but, whereas the self-absorbed, emotionally stunted Howard is impatient with and made uncomfortable by religious beliefs, “as if ‘beliefs’ were a kind of condition, like oral herpes”, the reader’s sympathy lies with Kiki, whose openness inclines her to be more open and generous.

Unlike her husband, with his intellectual hatred of Mozart and Rembrandt, Kiki appreciates beauty — whether of people, art, bodies, or nature. Despite having a job and trying to hold her family home together, she still spends the best part of an hour — to her freezing daughter’s disgust — sitting with the kitchen door open contemplating the onset of winter and the last falling leaves of the season. The reverie evokes a memory of Carl, a disadvantaged young aspiring poet whom the family met at a concert.

Credit Dominique Nabokov 2016The award-winning novelist Zadie Smith

Among a large cast of characters, Kiki is at the emotional heart of this novel, in which there is a strong idea that, just as a genuine experience of beauty takes you out of yourself and your own preoccupations, so the same impulse makes you less selfish and more aware of other people.

For Smith, as for Elaine Scarry, from whose philosophical book On Beauty and Being Just (2000) the novel takes its name, beauty fosters the spirit of justice. The clearest example of this is Claire Malcolm, the only poet on the faculty of Wellington’s English department, who, at the same time as attending in her poetry to nature (“I’d get involved with a cornflower, for days …”) nurtures the talents of unconventional non-Wellington students such as Carl, or the performance poet Chantelle, by allowing them to attend her classes even though they are not enrolled at the university.

Beauty and justice relate to education and universities, and the idea that love of beauty inspires love of neighbour originates in the writings of the French mystic Simone Weil, whose concern for such “precious things” in her essay “Love of the Order of the World”, from her contemplative book Waiting for God, both Scarry and Smith quote. Although Smith’s fictional version of attentiveness is not transcendent or religious, the parallels with prayer and contemplation are not difficult to make. Like Claire, Kiki pays attention to things, looking in small detail, and her attentiveness, whether to her garden or to Carlene, inspires love.

In this extremely funny novel, populated with many characters, Smith skilfully draws out a range of themes: race, religion, friendship, feminism, illness and death, family, beauty, art, and love. With humour and seriousness, Smith encourages us not to be ashamed of admiring or contemplating beauty when we encounter it, but to allow it to draw us out of ourselves and our preoccupations.

Canon Anna Macham is Precentor of Salisbury Cathedral.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith is published by Penguin at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.10); 978-0-141-01945-1.


  1. “Apparently everybody gets special treatment — blacks, gays, liberals, women — everybody except poor white males.” Do you have any sympathy for this position? How might you respond to it?
  2. What different ideas and ideals of womanhood exist in the novel? Carlene, for example, is described as “the ideal ‘stay-at-home’ Christian Mom”.
  3. What is the significance of the title, On Beauty, for you? What different forms of beauty exist, and how are they interpreted?
  4. “The greatest lie ever told about love is that it sets you free.” Do you agree?
  5. Why does Carl complain that the Belseys are no longer black? Are there “levels” of blackness, and is this a tension that the Belseys themselves feel?
  6. “It’s like everybody’s marriage was on a timer.” Where do the struggles in these marriages stem from, do you think?
  7. Many of the characters feel concern about their intellect and knowledge. What kinds of knowledge exist in the novel, and which ones are important, do you think?
  8. “It’s the worst kind of pretension, you know, to fake the way you speak.” How do the youth in the novel try to develop their identities, and what challenges do they encounter?
  9. “I love you, Dad (and I pray for you, too).” How is Christianity treated in the novel?
  10. The friendship between Kiki and Carlene is, perhaps, a surprising one. How do the women develop this friendship, despite their differences?

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 7 February, we will print extra information about our next book, The Humans by Matt Haig. It is published by Canongate at £8.99; 978-1-78689-466-3).


After a Cambridge mathematics professor solves the Riemann hypothesis, aliens from the planet Vonnadoria fear that the discovery might lead to human space travel. In response, a representative promptly arrives to assassinate the professor, and inhabits his body. The Vonnadorian then attempts to fit into his new human family while analysing and learning about human ways, and reflecting on the positives, negatives, and paradoxes of the human condition. The result is an amusing and heart-warming novel that explores love, relationships, and the nature of being human. Haig has commented that The Humans is the book he is most proud of.


Born in Sheffield in 1975, Matt Haig studied at the Universities of Leeds and Hull. He is a best-selling adults’ and children’s author, whose award-winning books include How to Stop Time and A Boy Called Christmas. He has also written about his experience of depression and anxiety, most particularly in his memoir, Reasons to Stay Alive. These are topics that he also treats in his novels in a humorous and poignant style that is typical of his work. He has spoken about his hope for the power of reading to increase empathy and give new perspectives. Haig now lives in Brighton with his wife and two children.


March: Stanley and Elsie by Nicola Upson
April: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

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