"The Fraud" by Zadie Smith

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David and ZadieI discovered author Zadie Smith through her debut novel "White Teeth," which I loved.

Her latest novel - "The Fraud," is about history. Sort of. She based the book on the true story of Roger Castro - a butcher who claimed to be Sir Roger Tichborne, an English nobleman believed to have drowned in a shipwreck years earlier. The Tichborne Claimant bears little resemblance to Sir Roger, but the working class rallies around him as one of their own. The Claimant's case is shaky, but two people believe him - Sir Roger's mother and Andrew Bogle, a former slave and free servant of the Tichborne family.

We experience the story primarily through the eyes of Eliza Touchet, cousin and housekeeper of once-popular author William Ainsworth.

Although Ms. Smith invented many situations and conversations in the novel, many characters were real people. Ainsworth, Tichborne, and Touchet were all real. Touchet died at an early age, so this story imagines her life had she survived for many more years. Even Charles Dickens makes an appearance.

The story touches on many themes - slavery and abolition; art versus commercial success; the role of intelligent women and black men in Victorian society; the role of the press; and the rights of the poor.

As in her excellent debut novel "White Teeth," this book explores the backstory of many of its characters, providing layers to the story and motivations of the characters.

The book covers three stories in detail: The Tichborne trial, the life of Eliza, and Bogle's journey from African landowner to Jamaican slave to English servant. Smith tells each story well, but she ties them together with less expertise than she did in the many subplots of "White Teeth."

The novel leaves many questions unanswered, not the least: To which fraud does the title refer? Is it the man claiming to be Tichborne despite lacking much of the knowledge possessed by that nobleman? Was it Ainsworth, whose novels were once popular but faded to obscurity in the last years of his life and were forgotten after his death? Or was it the British people who presumed to rid themselves of the guilt after abolishing the slave trade but allowing slavery in the colonies?

Whatever the answer, the story takes the reader on an interesting journey.