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The Fraud by Zadie Smith review – a trial and no errors

Inspired by an extraordinary court case, and featuring a real-life Victorian novelist, Smith’s funny, almost flawless new novel examines identity, the notion of truth and 19th-century England and Jamaica in flux

Early on in Zadie Smith’s exuberant new novel, Eliza Touchet – the housekeeper, cousin by marriage and sometime lover of the Victorian novelist William Ainsworth – wonders why fictional characters and events are often pale facsimiles of their real-life inspirations. Ainsworth, for instance, can’t help basing a minor character on Mrs Touchet every now and again – be it as a dark-haired “mystery woman” in his first book of stories (“She was not, perhaps, what many might call beautiful, but I never knew anyone who possessed so much the power of interesting at a first look”), or a certain Mrs Radcliffe in one of his late novels, “with her ‘rich black tresses’, decided opinions, Amazonian height and skill with a horsewhip”.

In his mid-60s, Ainsworth has churned out a novel partly set in Jamaica, Hilary St Ives, though he’d never once visited the island. Mrs Touchet can trace back the gist of his knowledge about Jamaica to a propaganda booklet of the 1820s, when much of England could delude themselves into thinking that the abolition of the transatlantic ***** trade in 1808 was tantamount to the freedom of enslaved populations in British colonies. Ainsworth ignored the regular reports of tragic rebellions and vengeful colonial reprisals coming out of the Caribbean in the decades since to paint a prelapsarian portrait of “long savannahs fringed with groves of cocoa-trees”. Eliza finds this entire business of borrowing, and omitting, recognisable details from life rather stale: “From such worn cloth and stolen truth are novels made. More and more the whole practice wearied her, even to the point of disgust.” Years later, Eliza goes on to write a novel of her own – the theme is noticeably more contemporary than her cousin’s compulsive efforts.

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