Monday, August 3, 2009

The president, the professor and the police officer

Once again I'm amazed at how real life can sometimes come crashing into the fiction one is reading.

I posted my first blog entry last year on the day that Barack Obama was elected President of the USA, because I realised that I was reading the perfect book at the perfect moment: The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers. And last week, as Obama had to deal with the first potentially damaging 'racial incident' of his presidency - after a prominent black professor from a New England university town had been arrested for burglary in his own home - I was reading a remarkable campus novel about black academics and their fancy homes in, yes, you guessed, a New England university town.

Zadie Smith's On Beauty , winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006, would have been a joy to discover under any circumstances, but the media blitz following the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates - by a white police officer who mistook him for a burglar - added some authentic seasoning to a tasty dish of make-believe and satire.

Smith, in case you've forgotten, was seen as something of a literary Wunderkind after the success of her debut novel, White Teeth, while she was still in her early twenties. Her next book, The Autograph Man, proved that she was not simply a shooting star, and On Beauty, written before she turned thirty, confirmed that she was indeed 'the author setting the bar for her generation', as The Scotsman claimed. She was praised even more profusely in The New Statesman: 'Smith can outwrite all but a few of her contemporaries, and everyone her own age.'

After reading this wise and witty and sexy and stylish campus novel, I can only agree. Smith is an astonishingly accomplished author - not only for her age, but for any age - and On Beauty is a story with emotional substance and intellectual depth, which also happens to be very, very funny. Her characters are completely convincing three-dimensional people of various ages, races and social classes; her dialogue is always pitched perfectly, whoever is speaking; and the plot, full of unexpected twists and delightful turns, provides pure narrative pleasure.

So if you're still looking for a book to carry you through these long lazy days of summer (or long dark winter nights, if you're living on the other half of the planet), hurry up and read this one. And while you're enjoying the humorous depiction of black intellectuals and art critisism and campus politics and family relations and marital infidelity - and much, much more - do spare a thought for the real-life black intellectual who was recently invited, by the first black president of his country, to share a beer with the white police sergeant who'd arrested him.

One more proof that life outdoes even the best satirical fiction, time and again.