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Evocative and immersive: Kim Johnson reviews 'The Fraud'

The Tichborne Case, 1873: A 19th century depiction showing Arthur Orton and witness Andrew Bogle | Image by: Penta Springs Limited / Alamy Stock Photo

3 min read

With an exceptional ear for dialogue, Zadie Smith’s first foray into historical fiction is a captivating and thought-provoking read

When Zadie Smith burst onto the literary stage at the age of 24 with her debut novel, White Teeth, it was an instant bestseller and won her a number of prestigious awards. For me, as a Black woman from Liverpool, it was a significant event.

Her sixth novel, published last month by Hamish Hamilton, is a work of historical fiction, her first foray into a genre she had previously stated she would never consider. Yet Smith writes in a way that evokes a bygone time and place, depicting life in 19th-century England and the Caribbean.

The book is set in north-west London, an area she is very familiar with, where she was born and still lives. The Fraud is based on real characters and events: the trial of the Tichborne claimant, Arthur Orton – an East End butcher from Wapping – who claimed to be Sir Roger Tichborne, heir to a large estate and fortune, who had been missing and presumed lost at sea. The trial captivated all of England and still remains one of the longest trials in English legal history.

It is the first time that Smith has directly approached the subject of slavery in her novels

The Fraud alluded to in the title is a tale about truth and fiction, Jamaica and Britain. It is the first time that Smith has directly approached the subject of slavery in her novels, with previous publications focusing on ethnicity and post-colonial identity, exploring themes of race and class. Smith has demonstrated a real talent for exploring and describing social commentary on these important issues.

The book explores love, friendship and relationships, but what’s exceptional about The Fraud is Smith’s ear for dialogue and her character development, based on real people. The main protagonist, Scottish housekeeper Mrs Eliza Touchet, is the actual cousin by marriage of the prolific writer of the time William Ainsworth – a contemporary of William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens. In this reconstructed version of Eliza, the real driving force of the piece, Smith depicts a woman constrained by the limits of her time and place. 

The FraudThe book is punctuated with other real-life historical figures, including Charles Dickens, and populated by a number of colourful characters. Smith seamlessly weaves together the stories of these other characters, creating an immersive historical experience for the reader, spanning London and the Caribbean: an Irish lawyer; a working-class man pretending to be part of the ruling elite; and a former enslaved African from Jamaica, Andrew Bogle. Finding himself the star witness, Bogle provides witty testimony and captivates the country – with his future depending on telling the right story.

The No.2 The Sunday Times bestseller at the time of writing, I would highly recommend The Fraud. It is an easy and captivating read, thought-provoking and interspersed with humour, but will have you questioning the underlying moral themes intertwined in the novel: truth and deception.

Kim Johnson is Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside

The Fraud
By: Zadie Smith
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton

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