cover image The Fraud

The Fraud

Zadie Smith. Penguin Press, $29 (464p) ISBN 978-0-525-55896-5

Smith’s mesmerizing latest (after the essay collection Feel Free) centers on a real-life Victorian cause célèbre involving a man who claims to be a long-lost English aristocrat. The story opens in 1873, when Scottish widow Eliza Touchet (like most of the novel’s characters, a historical figure) has spent four decades as the housekeeper for novelist William Ainsworth, her cousin by marriage. One of her distractions from her unrewarding life is the highly publicized controversy surrounding the so-called Tichborne Claimant. English aristocrat Roger Tichborne is believed to have drowned off the Brazilian coast in 1854. Twelve years later, however, a man who says he’s Sir Roger begins a lengthy attempt to claim the Tichborne title and fortune. As a spectator at the 1871 civil trial the claimant initiates to establish his identity, Eliza doubts his story yet instinctively believes one of the witnesses on his behalf, a formerly enslaved man named Andrew Bogle. After the jury rules against the claimant and he is arrested for perjury and fraud, Eliza introduces herself to Bogle. An abolitionist, she’s moved by his dignity and vulnerability, and persuades him to tell her his story. In the process, she realizes that she, like Ainsworth, is a writer. Smith weaves Eliza’s shrewd and entertaining recollections of her life, a somber account of Bogle’s ancestry and past, brief excerpts from Ainsworth’s books, and historic trial transcripts into a seamless and stimulating mix, made all the more lively by her juxtaposing of imagination with first- and secondhand accounts and facts. The result is a triumph of historical fiction. (Sept.)