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The Fraud by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith is a British author whose first novel, White Teeth (published in 2000), became a best seller and won many awards. A later novel, On Beauty won the 2006 Orange Prize for Fiction. As well as works of fiction, she is also an essayist and playwright.

The Fraud is her first historical novel. It is set in London in the 1870s and is based around the main character, Eliza Touchet. Mrs Touchet, as she is often referred to, is a widow. This is a result of an unfortunate marriage, which ended after only a few years when her husband ran away with their son and the nursemaid. They all subsequently died from scarlet fever, leaving Eliza alone.

Her ex-husband’s literary cousin, William Ainsworth, tries to help Eliza by offering her a place to live with him and his family in their London home. She becomes their housekeeper and forms a very close bond with his wife. William is a (not very successful) writer and that is the main focus of his life, often taking him away from his home. William keeps company with the likes of Charles Dickens, and there is a lot of reference to the world of writers and the publishing world.

Eliza is a very perceptive woman with an interest in literature, politics and social justice. Like most of Victorian England, she becomes engrossed in the Tichborne Trial, a real-life event which took place in the early 1880’s. It involved the claim by a man named Arthur Orton that he was the missing heir to the Tichborne baronetcy. The trial revolved around shipwrecks, slavery, deception and manipulation. It’s a fascinating story in itself, which touches on the subject of Jamaica and the way history has treated people in the pursuit of trade.

Eliza is in the unfortunate position of being a housekeeper because of events in her life, but she is by no means a slave. Her observations, relationships and opinions make her the most interesting character. The style of writing is witty and, at times, humorous, and it really portrays the inner thinking of Eliza. I loved the relationships between Eliza and William’s two wives, and the way she is an inwardly strong and opinionated woman in a period when it was not acceptable to be one. The observations of Victorian London are also enlightening – the city is developing, trade is flourishing, and the class system is well and truly entrenched.

I highly recommend this book.

Reviewer: Rachel White

Penguin Random House


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