Guest Post by Kevin Brown
The title of Zadie Smith’s latest novel is misleading, as there is no singular fraud in this novel; instead, everybody seems to be a fraud. Smith bases her novel on the historical account of the “Tichborne Trial,” in which a man claims to be Sir Roger Tichborne, a claim that is so absurd to be laughable, given the evidence. However, people—primarily those of the lower- and growing middle-class—firmly support him, even when they know the claim is baseless. They attend his trial and rallies in support of him, denying any reality he or his trial calls into question. If readers are wondering if there are contemporary echoes, Smith sets them to rest with a song that serves as the epigraph for Volume Eight (her structure mirrors the Victorian novels she is channeling), in which each stanza ends with the word trump. While the trial is the underpinning of the novel, Smith largely follows Eliza Touchet, the housekeeper for William Ainsworth, a novelist who once outsold Dickens, but who is now largely forgotten. Eliza attends their literary gatherings, but even though she sees through the literary elite, she has no standing to critique, given the role of women in the 1800s. When she meets Andrew Bogle, a formerly enslaved Jamaican who serves as the faux Tichborne’s one consistent witness, she asks to hear his life story, wanting to understand a broader view of Britain and humanity. She ultimately has a moral choice to make to try to stay true to her beliefs, to avoid being a fraud herself, and she develops a different kind of voice by the end of the novel. While Smith spends much of the novel showing characters who doubt the very idea of a shared reality, she reminds readers that fiction can still convey truth, even when it rewrites history to do so.
The Fraud by Zadie Smith. Penguin, 2023.
Reviewer bio: Kevin Brown has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels. Twitter @kevinbrownwrite or kevinbrownwrites.weebly.com/.