In her "acknowledgements", Zadie Smith informs us: "It should be obvious from the first line that this is a novel inspired by a love of E M Forster, to whom all my fiction is indebted, one way or the other. This time I wanted to repay the debt with hommage."
Sure enough, her first sentence ("One may as well begin with Jerome's e-mails to his father") echoes the opening of Howards End: "One may as well begin with Helen's letters to her sister." Those letters to Margaret begin by describing the fascinatingly worldly Wilcox family, with which Helen is staying at Howards End. They continue by announcing (all too precipitately) that she has fallen in love and intends to marry the younger son of the family, Paul. Jerome's e-mails describe to his parents in America the interestingly English Kipps family, his overseas hosts, and continue with the announcement (all too precipitate) that he has fallen in love and intends to marry the daughter of the house, Victoria. Neither marriage happens. Other complicated things do.
The hommage continues and is already, doubtless, inspiring the early-bird thesis writers. The instructed eye will identify, easily enough, On Beauty's Leonard Bast (a rap-loving drop-out, Carl Thomas), the saintly, soon-to-die Mrs Wilcox figure, and the impulsive bequest (not of a country house, as Mrs Wilcox wills to Margaret Schlegel, but of a valuable Haitian painting). At almost every juncture, On Beauty genuflects ostentatiously towards How-ards End. And looming over the whole narrative is Forster's half-despairing, half-wishful epigraph: "Only connect." Smith clearly wants to connect herself with a main line of British fiction. Or perhaps she is making the point that connection is, a century on, harder than it ever was - and more necessary. Or perhaps there is some subtle subversion at work. We shall wait for the thesis writers to tell us.
What is clear is that, like Forster, Smith regards the human comedy with a dry, amused and rather donnish detachment. Formally, On Beauty belongs to a post-Forsterian genre: the campus novel. Montgomery Kipps (later "Sir Monty") and Howard Belsey are rival Rembrandt scholars. Kipps has the populist touch. He is an art historian for the people - a "public intellectual" - and aggressively politically incorrect. He is based in England and is African Caribbean, as are his wife and family, but he is no less English for that.
Belsey is dry, academic and liberal. His great monograph on the Dutch painter is stuck in the works. He teaches at an East Coast college, Wellington, which is not quite Ivy League (he is not in Kipps's celebrity class). He is British and white; his wife, Kiki, is a black American. The great-great-granddaughter of a slave, the great-granddaughter of a maid, the granddaughter of a nurse, the daughter of a legal clerk, Kiki has made it into the upper echelons of East Coast society. It is both a triumph and a deracination. She feels "alone in this sea of white", radically disconnected. So much for five generations' struggle. Her husband, too, has failed to root himself - despite being ten years at Wellington, he has failed to gain tenure.
Kipps comes to Wellington as a visiting professor, and the fat (academically) is in the fire. The children of the two fami-lies mix. There is high-order sexual misconduct: "inappropriate behaviour", as the moral code books primly put it. Howard's eight-and-a-half-inch penis (a detail that lingered, adhesively, in this reviewer's mind) goes where it shouldn't, as does Professor Kipps's member (the dimensions of which are not divulged).
Smith's novel sustains a light (yes, Forsterian) touch throughout. There is satire - notably on the fatuities of "creative writing"courses and, more bafflingly, Richard Branson. The narrative is periodically ornamented by the baroque descriptiveness that so arrests the reader in White Teeth. For example, here is Smith's description of the opening of the academic year in New England, as Howard and Kiki's daughter, Zora, em-barks on her freshman courses:
Summer left Wellington abruptly and slammed the door on the way out. The shudder sent the leaves to the ground all at once, and Zora Belsey had that strange, late-September feeling that somewhere in a small classroom with small chairs an elementary school teacher was waiting for her. It seemed wrong that she should be walking towards town without a shiny tie and pleated skirt, without a selection of scented erasers. Time is not what it is but how it is felt.
The transition from pencil boxes to the sententia about mutability is breathtakingly confident. Smith, it is safe to say, can outwrite all but a few of her contemporaries, and everyone her age.
Age matters in a novel that is so self- consciously in touch with the present. In her acknowledgements, Smith thanks her "younger brothers" Doc Brown and Luc Skyz, who "offered advice on all the things I am too old to know". The author of On Beauty may be too old to be up with the latest mutations of rap music, but she is precociously young as a novelist and, with this novel, leads the new generation of British fiction.
British and other than British, one might add. All but a few of On Beauty's pages are set in America. Most of its dramatis personae are Americans and Britons of colour. Forsterian connections are harder now than they were in the high Edwardian period. In 1910, England (symbolised by the enduring Howards End country house) was the imperial centre of the civilised world. Now the cultural pull is towards America. Tittle-tattle alleges that Smith left Britain a couple of years ago to escape gossip about her private life. One would prefer to think that, as with that other transatlantic pilgrim, Salman Rushdie, she was serving the higher purposes of her art. As Henry James came here in search of his "international theme", so they have gone there to forge the necessary connection.
After the relative let-down of The Autograph Man, On Beauty will restore the reputation Smith earned for herself with White Teeth. Forget hommage. It's in the Howards End class. Well, almost.
John Sutherland is chair of judges for the 2005 Man Booker Prize. He will start a regular NS books column from America later this month