The Fraud

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Pub Date 7 Sep 2023 | Archive Date Not set

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Book of the Year 2023 according to New York Times, New Yorker, Guardian, Economist, Observer, The Spectator, Financial Times, Vogue, The Times, The Oldie, i Paper, The Standard, Washington Post, Independent, Daily Express


‘A writer at the peak of her powers’ The Telegraph

Truth and fiction. Jamaica and Britain. Who gets to tell their story? Zadie Smith returns with her first historical novel.

Kilburn, 1873. The 'Tichborne Trial' has captivated the widowed Scottish housekeeper Mrs Eliza Touchet and all of England. Readers are at odds over whether the defendant is who he claims to be - or an imposter.

Mrs Touchet is a woman of many interests: literature, justice, abolitionism, class, her novelist cousin and his wives, this life and the next. But she is also sceptical. She suspects England of being a land of façades, in which nothing is quite what it seems.

Andrew Bogle meanwhile finds himself the star witness, his future depending on telling the right story. Growing up enslaved on the Hope Plantation, Jamaica, he knows every lump of sugar comes at a human cost. That the rich deceive the poor. And that people are more easily manipulated than they realise.

Based on real historical events, The Fraud is a dazzling novel about how in a world of hypocrisy and self-deception, deciding what's true can prove a complicated task.

‘It’s difficult to give any idea of how extraordinary this book is. One of the great historical novels, certainly. But has any historical novel ever combined such brilliantly researched and detailed history with such intensely imagined fiction? Or such a range of living, breathing, surprising characters with such an idiosyncratically structured narrative?’ Michael Frayn

‘As always it is a pleasure to be in Zadie Smith’s mind, which, as time goes on, is becoming contiguous with London itself. Dickens may be dead, but Smith, thankfully, is alive’ New York Times

‘Zadie Smith’s Victorian-set masterpiece holds a mirror up to Britain . . . The Fraud is the genuine article’ Independent

‘Smith’s dazzling historical novel combines deft writing and strenuous construction in a tale of literary London and the horrors of slavery’ Guardian

Instant Sunday Times bestseller, September 2023

Book of the Year 2023 according to New York Times, New Yorker, Guardian, Economist, Observer, The Spectator, Financial Times, Vogue, The Times, The Oldie, i Paper, The Standard, Washington Post...

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Featured Reviews

Zadie Smith's first historical novel takes as its subject the life of the Victorian novelist, William Harrison Ainsworth (best known for Rookwood) and one of the scandals of the age, the Tichborne case.

Through impeccable prose, Smith brings to life this fascinating tale, and into its swirl brings many faces and names that will be all too familiar to the lover of Victorian literature: Dickens, Cruickshank, Thackeray.

I felt fortunate to have received this book to review the day I did, having just started reading Ainsworth's follow up to Rookwood (a novel which gets a critical mauling here, and we'll deserved too!) One doesn't need to know the biographical details of this novelists life to appreciate this novel, though, as in Smith's deft hands we are bought into this world easily.

I thoroughly enjoyed my reading of this. Though it might disappoint her fans bought here by White Teeth or Swing Time (her two best novels, full of their insight into contemporary life), by the time she brings in the Tichborne case, you begin to understand why Smith was attracted to this history and why she felt it a story worth telling.

Thank you to the publishers and Netgalley for the ARC.

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‘The Fraud’ tells the fascinating true story of The Tichborne Trial of 1873 in which a man purporting to be the presumed deceased Sir Roger Tichborne returns to England to claim his property. Supported by Andrew Bogle, once a slave, it is the latter whom the court spectators admire for his humility and sincerity, even though his testimony in support of Sir Roger is rejected.
Whilst this event is at the centre of the narrative, arguably more interesting still is Zadie Smith’s depiction of William Ainsworth Harrison, a novelist as successful as Dickens in the 1830s, his Jack Sheppard even outselling Oliver Twist. However, the star of this novel is Mrs Eliza Touchet, Ainsworth’s cousin-companion and housekeeper. Through her, Zadie Smith explores the inherent difficulties of being an intelligent, liberal-minded, single woman in Victorian England. Mrs Touchet recognises that: ‘…she thought of herself as having several faces to show at different times to different people – as all women have, and must have, to varying degrees …’ And she realises that this, too, must be the case for Mr Bogle whose past experiences have been horrific and who now must meld into a society which has, until recently, supported these cruelties. Whilst some passages are difficult to read - the author never shies away from the brutality of the colonies - they are a necessary reminder of the very recent history.
Although the reader doesn’t have to be au fait with nineteenth century novelists to enjoy this story, it’s clear that Zadie Smith has had a lot of fun imagining her protagonists engaging with some of them and gossiping about their literary world. Mrs Touchet is not only a wise, introspective character; she also has a wicked sense of humour as demonstrated when Charles Dickens mutters a sarcastic comment ‘under his breath, amusing himself thoroughly. And mustn’t it be wonderful, thought Mrs Touchet, to be one’s own best entertainment.’ Over the years living with her cousin, she thinks a great deal about the nature of fiction and its effect on the public. When her cousin rails against George Eliot’s writing and asks, ‘‘Is this all that these modern ladies’ novels are to be about? People?’’ she replies ‘‘I like it’ and lifted a scone to her mouth, the better to obscure a smile.’ She recognises that, ‘the great majority of people turn out to be extraordinarily suggestible, with brains like sieves through which the truth falls.’ And, of course, this is still the case today as we see time and again through fake news stories pedalled by social media.
There’s a great deal to engage with in ‘The Fraud’. Zadie Smith is nothing if not a thought-provoking writer. Her talent for characterisation is here in abundance and her reminder that formerly enslaved people were very much part of nineteenth century England is an important addition in this ‘Victorian’ tale.
My thanks to NetGalley and Hamish Hamilton for a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.

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Zadie Smith’s ‘The Fraud’ follows Eliza Touchet, housekeeper and cousin-by-marriage to author William Harrison Ainsworth, as she, along with William’s new, young wife Sarah, becomes increasingly invested in a trial that consumes the headlines: a trial to determine whether, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the man claiming to be Sir Roger Tichborne is telling the truth.

This novel is densely-packed and difficult to summarise, though that’s not to say that it’s particularly plot-driven. While the scenes following the trial and surrounding events are engaging, and take up a large portion of the novel, it’s clear that what is really of interest to the author is the opportunity this story provides to explore in depth a wide range of heavy themes - from class, to queerness, to womanhood, to slavery and the intrinsic human right to freedom. 

Smith examines class through the relationship between Eliza and Sarah, who is several decades her junior and who comes from a much less affluent background. The power imbalance between them is reversed in a key scene where Sarah takes Eliza to visit her old neighbourhood, and a “dolly shop” within it - to prove to Eliza that, while she might have gone through difficult times, she has no concept of what real poverty is, to demonstrate just how wide the class divide is and just how much people are truly struggling. It’s just one of several such scenes throughout the novel where Smith tackles a big idea in a small interaction, and makes an argument neatly and effectively.

The novel is perfectly structured, with the non-linear structure feeding you what you need to know at exactly the right moment, when it would be most impactful. It jumps around in time a lot, though is never difficult to follow or to place events relative to one another. Before events around the trial begin to feel repetitive, Smith shifts focus entirely for an extended period, bringing new depth to an important side character and to the novel at all.

This is a novel with a lot to say, and one that I think will age very well too. Important, timeless themes and ideas are addressed in a story that is constantly engaging and beautifully written. One climactic confrontation towards the end is so perfectly conceived and constructed that I think it’s destined to stick with me for a long time. If you’re on the fence about this book, I’d really recommend checking it out.

Thanks to Netgalley and Penguin for the e-ARC!

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What a wonderful book, I expected nothing less though. So interesting and captivating. The characters were and are so rich in history and have seeded interests in this era of history that I am grateful for. Thanks

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Zadie Smith’s first historical novel is set in the 1800s and is a real departure from her previous books. The novel is, as you’d expect from a writer of Smith’s talent, brilliant. It’s a captivating, thought-provoking novel that I highly recommend.

Eliza Touchet is a Scottish woman living in her cousin (by marriage) as his housekeeper at a time when society restricts her choices, both personally and professionally. Her cousin, William Ainsworth, is a novelist churning out terrible books that earn him derision.

Eliza becomes enthralled, as most of Victorian Britain seems to have done, by a court case called The Titchborne Claimant. Richard Titchborne, an English gentleman, had disappeared years previously but a man living in Australia claimed he was Richard Titchborne and had a right to his inheritance.

Andrew Bogle was enslaved on a Jamaican plantation owned by the Titchborne’s before being brought to England to work for the family and was a key witness at the trial.

Smith uses these interlocking stories to examine several themes, the most interesting of which for me was about freedom and every person’s right to be free. I felt too that the ‘fraud’ of the title could be applied to many characters in the book, not just the potential fraudster claiming to be Richard Titchborne. Each character is perhaps deluding or lying to themselves or others in some way, not always through deliberate deception.

I loved the tone and style of the novel, with unexpected funny moments throughout. Eliza in particular is written vividly and with a real sense of her inner life. Thanks to @netgalley for my copy of The Fraud - its a book that I'll read again and again.

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I'm very excited to see Zadie Smith diving into historical fiction, and this didn't disappoint at all. I haven't been so gripped by a book in a long time. Once I got going with this I couldn't stop reading.
At first I was worried that with so many characters, and so much jumping around in time, that I wouldn't be able to keep up, especially with the short length of the chapters. But Smith juggles everything perfectly.
There's a lot packed into this wonderful novel and I'm excited to read it again. I feel I'll get more out of it with each reading.

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The Fraud, Zadie Smith's first historical novel, is based on a real event - the Tichborne trial, a controversial trial of the Victorian age.
This is a thought-provoking book which explores a number of serious themes. It is not, however, without humour and wit. I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of real-life Victorian literary figures.
Zadie Smith writes beautifully and has a talent for creating believable characters.
Highly recommended.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an e-ARC. All opinions are my own.

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True story and historical fiction are brought to life neatly and comprehensively by Zadie Smith, as you follow the story of Eliza Touchet and her irrepressible cousin, the Victorian novelist William Ainsworth.

This is a wonderful exploration of so many themes and issues of the time, seen through the filter of Eliza, it's funny and lively and also very sad in some places.

Zadie Smith has come up with a treasure of a book here, with depth and interest and thoughtfulness - really enjoyable

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A chance to read new novel by Zadie Smith? Count me in. However, the first few pages of The Fraud came as a bit of a culture shock. This is Smith’s first historical novel and as I should have expected from the expert at dialogue, the language reflects this. Perhaps that’s why it seems quite different to On Beauty or White Teeth. Smith is also master of storytelling, and soon envelopes us in this early Victorian literary world, with Dickens and Thackeray making an appearance. Through the story of Eliza Touchet’s life, she illuminates the concerns of the age, such as the abolition of slavery, and the infamous Tichborne trial. In the afterword, the reader learns that many of the characters in the novel are based on real people, about whom only snippets are known, but Smith expertly provides them with rich hinter stories in this novel, exploring race and slavery, and sexuality.

Underpinning everything is the notion of identity, authenticity and therefore the fraud of the title. Eliza is our companion through the book, and her life is formed by society’s expectations of her gender, as well as the fundamental difference that money made to the shape of their lives. Eliza is a thoughtful woman, intelligent and astute, but with a love and care for the people in her life.

I soon got the hang of the fact that many of the characters are referred to by more than one name (what is this? A Russian novel?), which is a clever way of suggesting that we all adopt different names and identities.

Like any good historical novel, I was left googling a host of different events and concepts, eager to learn more. Smith wears her research lightly; we aren’t subjected to lengthy and highly detailed paragraphs on incidental aspects of history. Instead, there is an economy, a careful chosen gem of information that illuminates the story.

Often funny and touching, I’d recommend this to fans of Zadie Smith and lovers of historical fiction.

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This book is well written and ranges widely with a complex story.
I looked forward to picking it up again each time
Explores the issues and reality of colonialism, industrialisation and slavery with a beautiful humanity

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This was an absolutely fantastic book that I devoured in a way I didn't expect to. Zadie Smith is a phenomenal writer and I can't wait to see what she writes next.

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Zadie Smith thought she would not write a "historical novel" but apparently felt compelled to do so, she has written in a New Yorker article I have just read. I love the result: a thoroughly contemporary novel revolving around actual facts most of them forgotten, or that I did not know about. Brilliant protagonist (Eliza, Mrs Touchet) and a wonderful array of secondary characters. The storylines were gripping and what I generally don't like (moving from timelines to and fro) was handled in a compelling, not boring way - ie there was no mechanical to and fro but a variety of swings which kept my interest and illuminated the episodes retroactively and into the future.
Gender, class, race, family, identity, the creative mode, the media.... yes, it seems a bit too much to claim that all those topics are touched by The Fraud in a meaningful way, but they are!! thoroughly entertaining, intelligent writing. To think that the events depicted, the characters conjured have a real link to reality, actuality.... thoroughly recommended. Life and the past are far more complex that one usually thinks.

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I'm a huge fan of Zadie Smith and I thought this was her best novel in years - it's long and fairly complex (a lot of shifting perspectives across a long timespan) but it's so engaging and easy to read. I was immediately drawn in and I loved the richly drawn central characters (I had no idea until the afterword that many of them were real people but the fictional and the real blend together seamlessly).

There are very important themes explored here but with a real light touch and I struggled to put this book down at bedtime - the very short chapters always left me wanting one more! Highly recommended and thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the ARC.

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