THE FRAUD, by Zadie Smith. Read by the author.
Who is the titular fraud in Zadie Smith’s sixth novel, about a Scottish housekeeper in the home of an aging novelist in the 19th-century London suburbs? Is it the novelist, William Ainsworth, whose fame and social status belie a critical reception of his work as “generally dull, except when it is revolting?” Is it the housekeeper, Eliza Touchet (pronounced “touché”), who has lived with William since his cousin, her husband, abandoned her decades earlier, and has since been romantically involved with both William and his own late wife? Or is it the so-called Claimant, the man presenting himself as Sir Roger Tichborne, the heir to a noble fortune who was believed to have died in a shipwreck, inspiring a yearlong court trial that captures the maniacal attention of the English media and public?
With the virtuosic agility of an actor in a one-woman play, Smith as narrator so fully embodies each of her many distinct characters that she exposes, sometimes without their even knowing, the ways in which every one of us misrepresents ourselves in one way or another. This is a 19th-century novel of manners in which various people have very bad ones, and the result, thanks to the author’s perfect ear for comic timing, is vigorously, insistently funny.
From Eliza’s deceptively, exaggeratedly quaint Edinburgh brogue to the ludicrous, resounding forte of E.M. Forster’s King’s English; from the Cockney of William’s second wife to the Jamaican patois of Andrew Bogle, a formerly enslaved witness for the Claimant who becomes Eliza’s trusting bard: Smith bounces nimbly across the vernacular empire while leaving no mistake about her ubiquitous irony, her vocal side eye. For imperialism and its lingering injustices, of course, but also for the Victorian novels that upheld its mores in the same way that the populist horde buoys the Claimant himself.
“How like a novelist!” Mrs. Touchet thinks of the Claimant’s less-than-airtight argument. “How he lies to tell the truth!”
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THE FRAUD | By Zadie Smith | Read by the author | Penguin Audio | 12 hours, 26 minutes
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