The Fraud by Zadie Smith

In Zadie Smith’s new novel, her first in seven years, two characters are discussing George Eliot’s Middlemarch. “Couldn’t get through volume one,” one character says, “and aren’t there seven more to come?” Which made me feel better about my ambivalence towards The Fraud, which is set largely in the 1870s and, like Middlemarch, comes in eight parts.

This may be Smith’s first historical novel but it is still set in her beloved Kilburn in northwest London. Most of the story is filtered through the view of Eliza Touchet, a middle-aged Scotswoman who acts as housekeeper to her cousin, the novelist William Harrison Ainsworth. Eliza and William were both real people: William was a contemporary of Dickens who outlived him and even briefly outsold him, but at the time of the story his reputation is mud. He believes himself to be “the English Victor Hugo”, but for others his work is “dull, except when it is revolting.” (“‘Zounds!’ he mentally ejaculated,” runs a typical line.)

But the story gripping Eliza and the rest of London society isn’t a novel, but the three-month-long trial of the “Tichborne claimant” (also a true story, which in 1998 was made into a film starring Stephen Fry and John Gielgud). The claimant says that he is Roger Tichborne, the heir to a wealthy estate who was lost at sea a decade earlier and presumed dead. The fact that he looks nothing like Sir Roger — and looks more like Arthur Orton, a butcher from Wapping — doesn’t deter him. In his favor he has not just the testimony of Andrew Bogle, an upstanding Black man who grew up on a Jamaican sugar plantation, but the support of a public who see his case as one in the eye for the toffs.

This sets us up for lots of dialogue where William, Eliza, their family and associates can thrust and parry in debates about ownership, wealth and society. Here Smith is too smart for simplistic thinking, preferring complexity: Eliza desires “freedom” for people but resents its effects; she argues against the continued existence of plantations but then is reminded that her own family money came from cotton. William is mostly a comic foil: his conclusive answer to a debate on slavery is that “as a young man I wrote a pamphlet on the topic”.

Running throughout are reminders that 150 years ago was not very different from the day before yesterday, because human qualities — the drive for justice, prejudice, the appeal of simple answers — are evergreen. An anti-vaccination movement asks, “Who knew the true intention of these rich men and their needles?”; an underclass of people, such as gay men, “wrote the stories of their lives, as it were, by cipher.” Meanwhile there is everywhere a “mania for reform” and an obsession with “progress”, though then as now, progress is in the eye of the beholder.

Running throughout are reminders that 150 years ago was not very different from the day before yesterday, because human qualities are evergreen.

The Fraud is a rich stew of a book, but the problem is not just that the story doesn’t flow, it’s that it actively resists flow with a jumpy time scheme that confounds the reader, who just wants to be made welcome. In the first 150 pages I found myself regularly consulting my notes and flicking back to check on names, histories and relationships, which isn’t conducive to reading pleasure. The use of very short chapters, so effective in Smith’s NW (2012), becomes obstructive here with such a wide range of characters and broad time span. Things run a little more smoothly in the section dedicated to Andrew Bogle’s backstory, from Jamaica to England. There, the manager of the estate adopts a functional form of humanitarianism — “it was bad business to put heads on pikes: headless men can do no labor” — and the story is driven more by action than dialogue.

There are odd wild-card elements too, such as Eliza’s affairs with both William and his first wife Anne Frances (the former has a kinky element: “Sometimes, in bed, she put the rolled-up rag in his mouth because she sensed that he liked it and sometimes simply in the practical sense to stop him from recounting the plot of his novel”) — but these are touched on so rarely that they never seem relevant to the characters.

Smith remains a gifted writer, with a particular strength in combative dialogue and in expressing complex thinking without breaking out of her characters’ voices. And you can tell she’s having fun along the way: when those characters discuss Middlemarch, one objects: “Is this all that these modern ladies’ novels are to be about? People?” There are plenty of moments like this to make the reader smile. The Fraud is an ambitious novel: I often admired it very much. But I would much rather have loved it.

John Self is a Belfast-based writer