Who is ‘The Fraud’ in Zadie Smith’s comic novel? (Who isn’t?)
Set mostly in 19th-century England, “The Fraud” marks Zadie Smith’s shift from transcultural concerns. Her more contemporary “Swing Time,” narrated in first person, followed the entangled lives of two biracial dancers across three continents. In her bestselling debut, “White Teeth,” and subsequent novels like “On Beauty,” she explored — pointedly and personally — similar themes.
“The Fraud,” written in the third person and heavily researched, is undeniably British, its focus more insular. Some of Smith’s signature moves are still present in the sparkly prose, though, including short chapters that suit our distracted age. Here, too, Smith employs a nonlinear narrative that requires attention as we follow the divergent strands of the reedy story line.
When we first meet Eliza Touchet, the Scottish protagonist, she already has (mostly) arrived at her station in life. She is the “canny and hard” housekeeper of William Ainsworth, an unremarkable novelist who’s her cousin by marriage.
Based on historical accounts, Ainsworth’s life is somewhat sad yet eventful, if not a bit reckless, and populated with literary greats. He’s married to his maid, Sarah, and is father to a young child. His previous wife, Frances, an abolitionist from whom he was estranged, died, leaving him with three daughters.
Enter the widowed Mrs. Touchet, a devotee of Frances and her cause, whose role surpasses housekeeping. She is Ainsworth’s occasional lover and manuscript reader, a task she completes while holding her nose/tongue. She suspects Ainsworth is a literary fraud, his ideas stolen and unoriginal, but still keeps an eye on the supply of port and sense at his literary gatherings, where Charles Dickens and Count d’Orsay hold court, until one of them is unceremoniously killed off.
In brash Sarah, Mrs. Touchet finds yet another cause. Both become obsessed by the Roger Tichborne case which, like mania, did in fact grip 1870s London, ripping at its tightly woven, societal seams of class and race — both salient themes in Smith’s work.
As the spectacle of a trial unfolds, Sarah is firmly on the side of the Claimant, who purports to be the disappeared Roger Tichborne, heir to wealth and likely dead in a shipwreck. Mrs. Touchet is more neutral, except she takes to Andrew Bogle, a formerly enslaved Jamaican man whose tale of adversity and racism adds a thoughtful element. An old hand to the Tichborne family, Bogle insists that he recognizes the Claimant.
Are Bogle and the Claimant both frauds, like Ainsworth? Why do they lie, despite evidence to the contrary? What shadowy forces, besides money, motivate them? “What can we know of other people?” That question, from Mrs. Touchet, might well be the novel’s refrain, but it tracks more repetitive than generative as Smith flexes her formidable writing and researching skills in the book’s second half.
To present her big ideas about ethics, Smith has manifested the near-perfect, brainy character of incisive Eliza Touchet, aptly nicknamed “the Targe” by the Ainsworths. But eventually her readers might long for the Targe to exert some influence on the length of the novel, excising it by about 100 pages.
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