Excerpt from On Beauty by Zadie Smith, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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On Beauty

by Zadie Smith

On Beauty
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2005, 464 pages
    Aug 2006, 464 pages

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‘The Kippses?’ asked Zora loudly, coming back through the hallway. ‘What’s going on – did Jerome move in? How totally insane . . . it’s like: Jerome – Monty Kipps,’ said Zora, moulding two imaginary men to the right and left of her and then repeating the exercise. ‘Jerome . . . Monty Kipps. Living together.’ Zora shivered comically.

Kiki chucked back her juice and brought the empty glass down hard. ‘Enough of Monty Kipps – I’m serious. I don’t want to hear his name again this morning, I swear to God.’ She checked her watch. ‘What time’s your first class? Why’re you even here, Zoor? You know? Why – are – you – here? Oh, good morning, Monique,’ said Kiki in a quite different formal voice, stripped of its Florida music. Monique shut the front door behind her and came forward. Kiki gave Monique a frazzled smile. ‘We’re crazy today – everybody’s late, running late. How are you doing, Monique – you OK?’ The new cleaner, Monique, was a squat Haitian woman, about Kiki’s age, darker still than Kiki. This was only her second visit to the house. She wore a US Navy bomber jacket with a turned-up furry collar and a look of apologetic apprehension, sorry for what would go wrong even before it had gone wrong. All this was made more poignant and difficult for Kiki by Monique’s weave: a cheap, orange synthetic hairpiece that was in need of renewal, and today seemed further back than ever on her skull, attached by thin threads to her own sparse hair.

‘I start in here?’ asked Monique timidly. Her hand hovered near the high zip of her coat, but she did not undo it.

‘Actually, Monique, could you start in the study – my study,’ said Kiki quickly and over something Howard was starting to say. ‘Is that OK? Please don’t move any papers – just pile them up, if you can.’

Monique stood where she was, clutching her zip. Kiki stayed in her strange moment, nervous of what this black woman thought of another black woman paying her to clean.

‘Zora will show you – Zora, show Monique, please, just go on, show her where.’

Zora began to vault up the stairs three at a time, Monique trudging behind her. Howard came out from behind the proscenium and into his marriage.

‘If this happens,’ said Howard levelly, between sips of coffee, ‘Monty Kipps will be an in-law. Of ours. Not somebody else’s in-law. Ours.’

‘Howard,’ said Kiki with equal control, ‘please, no ‘‘routines’’. We’re not on stage. I’ve just said I don’t want to talk about this now. I know you heard me.’

Howard gave a little bow.

‘Levi needs money for a cab. If you want to worry about something, worry about that. Don’t worry about the Kippses.’ ‘Kippses?’ called Levi, from somewhere out of sight. ‘Kippses who? Where they at?’

This faux Brooklyn accent belonged to neither Howard nor Kiki, and had only arrived in Levi’s mouth three years earlier, as he turned twelve. Jerome and Zora had been born in England, Levi in America. But all their various American accents seemed, to Howard, in some way artificial – not quite the products of this house of his wife. None, though, was as inexplicable as Levi’s. Brooklyn? The Belseys were located two hundred miles north of Brooklyn. Howard felt very close to commenting on it this morning (he had been warned by his wife not to comment on it), but now Levi appeared from the hallway and disarmed his father with a gappy smile before biting the top off a muffin he held in his hand.

Excerpted from On Beauty, (c) 2005 Zadie Smith. Reproduced by permission of Penguin Press. All rights reserved.

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