Reviews for The Fraud

by Zadie Smith

Library Journal
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The cultural and literary life of Victorian England erupts vibrantly from each page of this extraordinary novel by Smith (White Teeth; On Beauty). Drawing upon the career of historical novelist William Harrison Ainsworth, Smith takes readers into the Ainsworth salon where Bulwer-Lytton, Thackeray, and Dickens drank until dawn, opining on the issues of the day. Also introduced is the marvelous Mrs. Touchet, a feisty Scot with a biting wit, the widowed cousin by marriage to William upon whom, as a single woman must, she depended for her keep. Eliza, in love with Ainsworth's wife Fanny but not above carnal romps with her cousin, ran the household impeccably and became William's first reader, feigning enthusiasm for his mind-numbingly lengthy novels. But it's the commencement of the infamous Tichborne trial that creates strange bedfellows of Mrs. Touchet and the illiterate former maid, now William's second wife. Their attendance at the hearings of the Australian butcher claiming to be the lost heir to the massive Tichborne estates awakens Eliza's consciousness to the litany of injustices perpetrated upon the enslaved people of Jamaica by Britain's aristocracy. VERDICT Smith wrestles contemporary themes surrounding women's independence, racism, and class disparity from centuries-old events in her beautifully crafted historical. Readers of Geraldine Brooks or Hilary Mantel will be enthralled.—Barbara Hoffert

Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

Eliza Touchet, William Harrison Ainsworth’s sharp-witted cousin by marriage, has long been essential to the writer’s existence as, at very least, his muse, confidante, housekeeper, protector, first reader, and copyist. In 1873, William's novels are no longer best-sellers and funds are low, but at 63 he's marrying his 26-year-old maid, Sarah, with whom he has a young daughter, further complicating Eliza’s fraught situation. In a triumph of sly narration, Smith has Eliza ruefully and teasingly reveal the hidden facets of her life, including the moral peril of being an abolitionist with ties to a “Jamaican fortune” poisoned by slavery. Rigorous Eliza can't resist accompanying down-to-earth Sarah to a London courtroom to witness a case that has captivated the country as an Australian butcher pursues his claim that he is a long-lost British aristocrat, supported by gripping testimony from Andrew Bogle, a formerly enslaved Black man. Smith’s history-rooted and trenchant portrayals of largely forgotten Ainsworth, Bogle, and the Tichborne Claimant, along with such famous figures as Charles Dickens, delectably and incisively interrogate recognition and erasure, fraud and gullibility, prejudice and injustice. Wielding delectably honed language in pithy chapters spiked with surprising revelations, needling observations, and lacerating truths, Smith, in her most commanding novel to date, dramatizes with all-too relevant insights crucial questions of veracity and mendacity, privilege and tyranny, survival and self, trust and betrayal.HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Versatile, brilliant, and best-selling Smith is always a must-read, and this spectacularly entertaining and resonant historical novel will have enormous appeal.

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

An obscure English novelist and a missing-heir trial are the real historical springboards for Smith’s latest fiction. Eliza Touchet is cousin and housekeeper to William Ainsworth, whose novel Jack Sheppard once outsold Oliver Twist but who, by 1868, has been far eclipsed by his erstwhile friend Dickens. Widower William is about to marry his maid Sarah Wells, who has borne him a child. Characteristically, he leaves the arrangements to Eliza, who manages everything about his life except the novels he keeps cranking out, which his shrewd cousin knows are dreadful. The new Mrs. Ainsworth is obsessed with the man claiming to be Sir Roger Tichborne, heir to a family fortune who was reported drowned in a shipwreck. The Claimant, as he is called, is likely a butcher from Wapping, but Sarah is one of many working-class Britons who passionately defend him as a man of the people being done wrong by the toffs. Eliza gets drawn into the trial by her fascination with Andrew Bogle, formerly enslaved by the Tichbornes in Jamaica, who recognizes the Claimant as Sir Roger. A Roman Catholic in Protestant Britain and William’s former lover who's been supplanted by a younger woman, Eliza feels a connection to Bogle as a fellow outsider. (Some pointed scenes, however, make it clear that this sense of kinship is one-sided and that well-intentioned Eliza can be as patronizing as any other white Briton.) Smith alternates the progress of the trial with Eliza’s memories of the past, which include tart assessments of William’s circle of literary pals, who eventually make clear their disdain for his work, and intriguing allusions to her affair with William’s first wife and to her S & M sex with William. (Eliza wielded the whips.) It’s skillfully done, but the minutely detailed trial scenes provide more information than most readers will want, and a lengthy middle section recounting Bogle’s African ancestry and enslaved life, though gripping, further blurs the narrative’s focus. Historical fiction doesn’t seem to bring out Smith’s strongest gifts; this rather pallid narrative lacks the zest of her previous novels’ depictions of contemporary life. Intelligent and thoughtful but not quite at this groundbreaking writer’s usual level of excellence. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Publishers Weekly
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Smith’s mesmerizing latest (after the essay collection Feel Free) centers on a real-life Victorian cause célèbre involving a man who claims to be a long-lost English aristocrat. The story opens in 1873, when Scottish widow Eliza Touchet (like most of the novel’s characters, a historical figure) has spent four decades as the housekeeper for novelist William Ainsworth, her cousin by marriage. One of her distractions from her unrewarding life is the highly publicized controversy surrounding the so-called Tichborne Claimant. English aristocrat Roger Tichborne is believed to have drowned off the Brazilian coast in 1854. Twelve years later, however, a man who says he’s Sir Roger begins a lengthy attempt to claim the Tichborne title and fortune. As a spectator at the 1871 civil trial the claimant initiates to establish his identity, Eliza doubts his story yet instinctively believes one of the witnesses on his behalf, a formerly enslaved man named Andrew Bogle. After the jury rules against the claimant and he is arrested for perjury and fraud, Eliza introduces herself to Bogle. An abolitionist, she’s moved by his dignity and vulnerability, and persuades him to tell her his story. In the process, she realizes that she, like Ainsworth, is a writer. Smith weaves Eliza’s shrewd and entertaining recollections of her life, a somber account of Bogle’s ancestry and past, brief excerpts from Ainsworth’s books, and historic trial transcripts into a seamless and stimulating mix, made all the more lively by her juxtaposing of imagination with first- and secondhand accounts and facts. The result is a triumph of historical fiction. (Sept.)