As recently as fifteen years ago, characters of black or Asian descent were still relatively scarce in British fiction, the country’s centuries-old diversity represented by a few select texts. The last decade or so, however, has seen the literary canon shift dramatically to accommodate these characters comfortably; so much, in fact, that they now hold a central place in popular fiction. While this newfound popularity is a positive step forward, it can mean that novels repeat themes with ideas and plots which have proven popular rather than challenging the status quo.
Beauty, Raphael Selbourne’s debut novel, clearly has antecedents in a number of books. Most notably, its eponymous lead character resembles Nazneen in Monica Ali’s bestseller Brick Lane: Beauty, like Nazneen, is a young Bangladeshi woman who embarks on a journey from solitude to self-awareness, juggling the conflicting demands of her own independence and loyalty to her family and culture. Unfortunately, while the subtlety and length of Ali’s novel meant its male Muslim characters could be as developed as their female counterparts, Beauty often affirms rather than challenges the oft-repeated stereotype of Muslim men as tyrannical and abusive. However, Beauty herself is a multi-layered character from the beginning, displaying resourcefulness, wit and a sharp tongue and nurturing her own prejudices against people of different ethnic backgrounds.
As Selbourne’s tale progresses, it becomes clear that there is much more to it than a simple regurgitation of popular themes. First of all, it is a gripping read, moving quickly thanks to well-written dialogue. It is also refreshing to read a novel about cultural diversity based outside of London: in Selbourne’s novel the much-maligned Midlands city of Wolverhampton is painted affectionately as a network of small, supportive communities which eventually allow Beauty to rediscover herself. Many of the characters speak with a strong Wolverhampton accent, which further conveys the unique quirks of this particular area and the character of its inhabitants.
It is the novel’s even-handed and affectionate portrayal of its working-class milieu that makes it so distinctive. Mark, the white man with whom Beauty strikes up a friendship, is a fascinating character, part of a downtrodden youth culture that responds to unemployment and lack of opportunity with petty crime and violence. Such people rarely get a voice in contemporary fiction, but in Selbourne’s hands he and his acquaintances are warm and sympathetic characters. The novel gently plays Mark’s prejudices against Beauty’s own and the friendship they form is convincing and genuinely touching. Yet they both remain flawed and complex characters, their narrow-mindedness diminishing but never disappearing.
Sometimes the messages in Selbourne’s tale are a little heavy-handed. In particular, the two middle-class characters are too smugly patronising to be convincing and the novel often draws a rather-too-clear dividing line between their problems and those faced by Mark, Beauty and others. Often little more than mouthpieces for Selbourne’s criticisms of middle-class complacency, Mark and Beauty’s more privileged counterparts are too flatly painted to do justice to the intricacies of their own relationships with people of different backgrounds.
However, these are minor flaws in what is a remarkably tender book, peopled with amiable characters. Beauty will be accessible to those who find other novels on similar topics overwrought and over-complex. But it is also a worthwhile addition to the literary landscape, offering a humanising story of friendship across cultural barriers and a fair, unbiased take on contemporary working-class urban life.