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In “The Fraud” (Penguin Press), the latest novel by the bestselling author of “White Teeth,” Zadie Smith revisits a real-life 19th century legal trial that divided England, while also exploring the class and cultural divisions of the Victorian era.
Read an excerpt below.
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A Very Large Hole
A filthy boy stood on the doorstep. He might be scrubbed of all that dirt, eventually – but not of so many orange freckles. No more than fourteen, with skinny, unstable legs like a marionette, he kept pitching forward, shifting soot into the hall. Still, the woman who’d opened the door – easily amused, susceptible to beauty – found she couldn’t despise him.
‘You’re from Tobin’s?’
‘Yes, missus. Here about the ceiling. Fell in, didn’t it?’
‘But two men were requested!’
‘All up in London, missus. Tiling. Fearsome amount of tiling needs doing in London, madam …’
He saw of course that she was an old woman, but she didn’t move or speak like one. A high bosom, handsome, her face had few wrinkles and her hair was black. Above her chin, a half-moon line, turned upside down. Such ambiguities were more than the boy could unravel. He deferred to the paper in his hand, reading slowly:
‘Number One, St James-es Villas, St James-es Road, Tunbridge Wells. The name’s Touch-it, ain’t it?’
From inside the house came a full-throated Ha! The woman didn’t flinch. She struck the boy as both canny and hard, like most Scots.
‘All pronunciations of my late husband’s name are absurd. I choose to err on the side of France.’
Now a bearded, well-padded man emerged behind her in the hall. In a dressing gown and slippers, with grey through his whiskers and a newspaper in hand, he walked with purpose towards a bright conservatory. Two King Charles spaniels followed, barking madly. He spoke over his shoulder – ‘Cousin, I see you are bored and dangerous this morning!’ – and was gone.
The woman addressed her visitor with fresh energy: ‘This is Mr Ainsworth’s house. I am his housekeeper, Mrs Eliza Touchet. We have a very large hole on the second floor – a crater. The structural integrity of the second floor is in question. But it is a job for two men, at the very least, as I explained in my note.’
The boy blinked stupidly. Could it really be on account of so many books?
‘Never you mind what it was on account of. Child, have you recently been up a chimney?’
The visitor took exception to ‘child’. Tobin’s was a respectable firm: he’d done skirting boards in Knightsbridge, if it came to that. ‘We was told it was an emergency, and not to dawdle. Tradesmen’s entrance there is, usually.’
Cheek, but Mrs Touchet was amused. She thought of happier days in grand old Kensal Rise. Then of smaller, charming Brighton. Then of this present situation in which no window quite fit its frame. She thought of decline and the fact that she was tied to it. She stopped smiling.
‘When entering a respectable home,’ she remarked, lifting her skirts from the step to avoid the dirt he had deposited there, ‘it is wise to prepare for all eventualities.’
The boy pulled off his cap. It was a hot September day, hard to think through. Shame to have to move a finger on such a day! But c***s like this were sent to try you, and September meant work, only work.
‘I’ll come in or I won’t come in?’ he muttered, into his cap.
From “The Fraud” by Zadie Smith. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Zadie Smith.
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