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'The Fraud' asks questions as it unearths stories that need to be told

Penguin Press

Zadie Smith's The Fraud is a lot of things: a meticulously researched work of historical fiction, a smart narrative about the importance of truth and the shortcomings of perspective, and a tale that delves deeply into authenticity and justice. It's also a very long book.

It's 1873 and Mrs. Eliza Touchet, a smart Scottish woman with a plethora of interests, has been working as a housekeeper for William Ainsworth, a writer whose career seems to be stuck on a downward spiral, for three decades. Ainsworth, who is also Eliza's cousin by marriage, likes Eliza and is doggedly working on his writing in order to recoup the modicum of recognition he once enjoyed, and which he now regularly aggrandizes in his retellings. Unfortunately, Ainsworth isn't a very good writer, and Eliza knows it. Eliza pretends to enjoy William's work, but she has a harder time staying quiet about other things they disagree on, like politics, injustice, and colonialism.

Meanwhile, Andrew Bogle, a man who grew up enslaved on a Jamaican plantation, also has very strong opinions about things like slavery, prejudice, and justice. Andrew finds himself in London as the star witness of an important case, and he understands that a lot depends on how truthfully and accurately he can tell his story. The Tichborne case, in which an Australian butcher claimed he was the heir to a big estate, was one of the longest cases heard in an English court, and it became a bit of an obsession for many in England, including Eliza.

The Fraud is a work of historical fiction and is thus filled with real events and characters. However, Smith's knack for developing full secondary characters and her talent for descriptions and witty dialogue make some parts of this novel as entertaining as the wildest fiction. The narrative juggles serious topics and offers a scathing look at the realities of the relationship between England and Jamaica. In the story — and this is very much a novel about novels — Ainsworth works on and then finishes "a novel 'set partially in Jamaica', an island upon which he had never set foot." The novel opens the discussion about what Jamaica is and what those on the outside imagine Jamaica to be. This conversation about truthfulness permeates the entire narrative.

The Fraud has one huge triumph: Eliza. She is the kind of character that sticks with you long after you've turned the last page. She can think long and hard about something only to then open her mouth and say the opposite. She understands the importance of honesty, but is willing to be dishonest to get to the truth. In short, she is an extremely complex and multilayered character that manages to keep the novel afloat when the overabundance of other elements threatens to make it sink.

A combination of snappy dialogue and short chapters helps keep things moving, but the big flaw of The Fraud is its length. Sure, many of the conversations are full of the brilliant wit that made Smith a household name: Eliza's observations are one of the best elements in the book, and Ainsworth's collapsing career is interesting to read about —"I do not advise you to enter upon a literary career." But the novel is ultimately bogged down by an endless series of events, conversations, recollections, subplots, and descriptions. Coming in at 464 pages, The Fraud is one of those rare novels that accomplishes a lot but that would also have accomplished those things if it had been 150 pages shorter.

Smith is questioning fiction here. She's also asking who is entitled to a story when there are two or sides involved. Perhaps more importantly — and this is always a timely thing — she is forcing England to reckon with its past. However, while these questions are at the core of the novel and they are stark reminders of how much of a talented storyteller Smith is, there is so much surrounding that core that those questions are often invisible or simply hard to remember because we're paying attention to everything else that's going on.

The Fraud matters because it unearths stories that need to be told, and because it asks a lot of important questions in both the unearthing and the telling. This is a novel packed with great writing and shining passages that go from humorous to deeply philosophical. However, it's also a tough read that brings together three storylines and seems to lose its purpose in doing so. Great writing is always a good thing, but in this novel it becomes the literary equivalent of trying to eat too much of a good thing; we know it's good, but we also wish there was less of it.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

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