Shelf Life
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Shelf Life: On Beauty by Zadie Smith

It was perhaps a strange choice to pick one of the larger texts in my Shelf Life list this year for the shortest month, but some perspective has been gained, and as always, literature finds its way into my reflection on the season of life I am currently moving through.

Short verdict: On Beauty explores themes of race, class, political ideology, relationship, selfhood, and communal identity, mapping the threads between these in fraught tension with each other – a narrative spider’s web. Read if you enjoy feeling increasingly conflicted as the novel moves along.

I haven’t read Howard’s End by E.M Forster, the text this novel gestures to and engages with, which I think is a loss for me, and something I will try to rectify on a second read sometime.

People disagree over what On Beauty is: classic family drama, an exploration of ideological conflict, suburban race/class conflict, Old/New World tension? To be honest, I couldn’t tell you exactly what On Beauty is about either, except that it compelled me to continue, and never gave in to neat conclusion.

Lately I’ve been feeling sluggish, out of sorts, and on edge. It’s been difficult to connect without impatience and restlessness. The digital spaces, as usual, are coursing with shouting arguments, breaking news on breaking news, eloquent op-eds, and viral memes.

“There is a breed of Tuesday in January in which time creeps and no light comes and the air is full of water and nobody really loves anybody”

Picking up On Beauty was an attempt to withdraw. But I was quickly drawn into the lives of the Belseys, to the incredible jumble of perspectives, politics, ideologies and personalities running through the spaces of the domestic home, the suburban town, the academic campus, and urban center. When Smith brought the Kipps, the ideological opposite into the same spaces, what resulted was a chain of interlocking conflicts, marvellously complex, extremely discomforting in many cases, and all too recognizable.

The title gestures clearly to Smith’s interest in the frames of beauty, which show up multiply in the text:

  • a term interrogated ideologically through Howard and Monty’s clashing ideals on Rembrandt
  • the physical embodiment of different types of beauty: Kiki Belsey, Claire Malcolm, Victoria Kipps
  • architectural beauty from the Belsey house, to the small church Carlene Kipps is buried in
  • musical aesthetic in the form of classical: Mozart’s Requiem and also references to Tupac and hip hop at large
  • dress codes as identity fashioning: from Levi’s streetwear, students’ formal and social wear, to colour and texture
Things I Loved:
  • Zadie Smith pays such loving attention to the banal details of life. I was intrigued by everything, like the patch of sunlight that had been avoided for years as part of a quirky Belsey family ritual.
  • Commuting. So much of the novel is full of these characters moving individually back and forth, reacting to and shaping themselves in the spaces they are in. Levi’s traversals into Boston, Kiki Belsey’s posturing in the Kipps’ house, Howard’s comfort on campus ground, even Carl’s shifting attitude as he gets enfolded into Wellington life.
  • The practical ideological mess of life. Left vs. Right, skin vs. skin, class vs. class, old vs. new, religious vs. secular. What is neatly separated in textual categories for us unravels so rapidly and becomes this breathing, tangly mass that I immediately recognize in the world I live in. Our characters might say one thing and act another way, be firmly convicted and viscerally confused. Ah. This glorious mess.
  • Women, women, women, women. Smith wrote thoughtful characters, fleshed out in full: unpleasant, conflicted, inexperienced, impatient, confusing, pathetic, and interesting women.
Things I didn’t Love:
  • To be honest, the singular thing I found jarring was the narrative tone shift at certain section breaks. A self-aware narrator is not a problem, but who the narrator is, why they have omnipresent access and why their voice isn’t consistent: at times philosophical and moralizing, at times, at times nostalgic and romantic, at times pragmatic and almost realist, and how these changing tones were to be read in relation to the narrative was a point that I had some trouble with.

This is my first Zadie Smith and based on this alone, I would be more than willing to read her other titles.

In this season for me where social media fatigue is kicking in hard, and I find myself often on the edge of burnout, On Beauty continues to challenge me to widen my perspective, and remember that neat and tidy is not what is real.
Perhaps, it is when what seems to have been understood, spills outside our frame of understanding that we need to start paying attention.

If you have a title suggestion for me to review, please drop me an email and say hi at

This entry was posted in: Shelf Life


jaziimun is an interdisciplinary artist who works in text, paper arts and tea. She is also an arts programmer, and a ceramic hobbyist. She is also a proud bun mom.

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