‘A triumph!’ ejaculated Mrs Touchet.
Yes, Mrs. Touchet, I’d have to agree… Zadie Smith’s latest novel, The Fraud, is equal parts witty and heart wrenching. A fan of serendipity – both the natural and artificial kind – Smith injects herself into the specific cultural and literary moment surrounding the historical Tichborne Trial of Victorian England when an Australian butcher claimed he was, in fact, heir to the Tichborne estate. This novel covers decades and continents; while the novel begins and ends with the queer, straight-shooting Mrs. Touchet in London, the middle of the novel centers on the life of Mr. Bogle. Asked to explain how he got to the trial by Mrs. Touchet, the novel peaks with brutal depictions of love, enslavement, and intercontinental displacement. Amidst giants such as Dickens, Shelley, and Keats, the voices of Mrs. Eliza Touchet and Mr. Andrew Bogle shine.
And yes, for those wondering, Touchet is the French pronunciation – something that Smith jokingly bemoans in her (spoiler alert!) New Yorker piece “On Killing Charles Dickens.” This is a task that is completed with surgical precision in the short chapter titled “Dickens Is Dead!”
Speaking of chapters, this novel clocks in at 454 pages with eight volumes of up to 43 chapters each – but don’t let this deter you. This novel is a fast read with some surprisingly sparse pages. Chapters tend to be one or two pages long, sometimes narrated by Eliza, sometimes containing excerpts from newspapers, and sometimes Mr. Andrew Bogle himself speaks through court transcripts. Filled with epigraphs and allusions, a thorough read might take another lifetime. However, Smith has taken excruciating care to breathe life into this historical fiction, getting to the heart of hypocrisies as class and racial tensions run high.
Between the well-off feminist-abolitionist, Eliza, and the formerly enslaved Jamaican, Mr. Bogle, Smith wrestles with questions such as: Can you represent systemic issues with individual stories? What are the limits of empathy?
Although many of these characters are beautifully fleshed out – especially as the two main characters get to speak through their own voice – they are also rather static. In the whirlwinds around them (varying in seriousness from dinner parties, trials, to emancipation), these characters have little growth. We see the swaths of their lives, but their roles feel inevitable in raging societal debates. Eliza is shut down by men for being too “whole hog,” and Bogle is ultimately never believed despite his reliability.
As the title suggests, the lives of Eliza and Bogle hinge on questions of truth. Or in the setting of this novel filled with writers, perhaps a better word would be “authorship.” Writing, as a craft, is a recurring theme – The Fraud draws constant attention to itself as a novel. Smith ties together the form of the novel with the form of legal proceedings: Titles of chapters create clear outlines. Like a legal document, Smith feigns simplicity and order in a courtroom tangle that requires “theories” of truth. Even in the trial filled with oration, the reader experiences the courtroom through authors’ records – Eliza’s book and the written transcripts.
Some of Smith’s most powerful writing comes from her poetics. For instance, in “The Poetic Circular Dream of Little Johanna”:
We shall have noses and eyes again and mouths and WE WILL SPEAK OF THE TREADMILL until the day of MOSES’ JUBILEE! I dreamt that NOTHING DIES and NOTHING IS FORGOTTEN for the TREADMILL IS A CIRCLE and there will be no end to circles until all have seen the TREADMILL and waded through its BLOOD.
With capitalization and prosaic formatting, this poem sticks out from the Victorian poetry that is quoted in the novel. However, Smith inserts herself as a continuation in this cannon – she is, after all, a London writer.
With great control, Smith is able to navigate both the literary scene of the time as well as the socio-political one. By connecting the stories of Mr. Bogle and Mrs. Touchet, Smith emphasizes the circle of care that we draw around ourselves. She sugarcoats nothing: Just because a story can be told does not mean people will listen. But with Smith’s great writing, the lives of Mr. Bogle and Mrs. Touchet are vibrant once again.