Frenemies spin a dazzling tale
Zadie Smith’s exuberant fifth novel, Swing Time, begins like her effervescent first, White Teeth, with a time-and-place stamped pivotal event. Just as Archie Jones’s failed suicide attempt in northwest London on New Year’s Day 1975 led to a chance encounter and subsequent new lease of life in Smith’s debut, so does a dance lesson in the same corner of the city prove momentous for two girls one Saturday in 1982 in her latest work. An on-off decades-spanning friendship develops, in and around which Smith weaves incisive and engaging examinations of race, class and gender.
At their first dance class Smith’s girls gravitate towards each other, noting and assessing their similarities. They are the same age (seven), the same colour (“as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both”) and live on “the estates”. One of them is the novel’s unnamed narrator, who lacks the talent to be a dancer but goes on to explore other aspirations and identities; the other is Tracey, who makes it to the West End but ends up less sure-footed offstage.
In its opening section, Swing Time feels redolent of Smith’s previous novel NW, retreading the same familiar stamping ground, charting a similar bumpy journey from girlhood to career woman. However, after both girls have experienced their share of youthful scrapes (boy trouble, family drama) and been exhilarated by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers routines, they grow up and drift apart and the novel takes diverting new turns. Tracey becomes a wild child, veers towards modern dance and gets into stage school. Our narrator sticks with black and white and top hat and tails, and starts again, alone.
“I found out what I was without my friend,” she comments sadly, “a body without a distinct outline.” But as her narrative fast forwards, then crisscrosses over various stages in her life, she is shaped by new outlines, adumbrated by other formative female figures.
Following a media studies degree and a stint at an outfit called YTV she becomes personal assistant to Aimee, a Bendigo-born pop superstar, who wrenches her out of her drab reality and propels her into a rarefied world of celebrity and wealth. At routine intervals she is brought down to earth when reconnecting with her leftist, feminist, autodidact mother.
Both these indomitable women harbour philanthropic ambitions, and their efforts have significant repercussions for the protagonist. Aimee’s project, a school for girls in West Africa, broadens her underling’s mindset, introduces her to new friends and ushers in an unexpected lover; the politically engaged mother’s aim of social improvement brings her daughter back in contact with a beleaguered, embittered and possibly unhinged Tracey.
It used to be common practice to refer to Smith’s talent as precocious. Now, 16 years on from the hullabaloo of White Teeth, we can simply call it prodigious. Swing Time is a masterful performance. Smith sets her sights high and impressively pulls off one creative feat after another. As ever, it is her characters that carry the novel, powering and animating the narrative. Her vividly drawn female leads hog the limelight and provide memorable turns. Her males, for the most part subordinated to bit-parters, show up, pass on, but leave their mark, from jailbird Louie, “the Playboy of the West Indies”, to handsome, brainy, love-struck economist Fern.
The novel is something of a departure for Smith. It is her first book to take the form of a first-person narrator’s account and her first to unfold in long, page-consuming paragraphs. This is also her most mature work to date. Gone are the gimmicky fonts and wacky antics that punctuated and marred, earlier books. The urban jungle, streetwise dynamic and localised lives of NW have been replaced by a wider, deeper, further-reaching range and remit. By taking her characters out of London and New York and into Africa, Smith takes herself out of her comfort zone, and the results are captivating.
In both Western and developing country settings we get illuminating meditations on roots and race. While at her “second-choice” English university, Smith’s heroine becomes increasingly irritated by Rakim, her hectoring boyfriend, who informs her that Beethoven dedicated a sonata to a mulatto violinist and that Shakespeare’s dark lady really was dark. “I did not want to rely on each European fact having its African shadow, as if without the scaffolding of the European fact everything African might turn to dust in my hands.”
But Smith is concerned not only with race but disgrace. “It was the first day of my humiliation”, runs the book’s opening line. Intrigued, we read on to find out what circumstances brought about her protagonist’s fall. Smith is good at these hooks, and snags us with another one early into the novel: why has Tracey soured into “my crazy ex-friend”, someone unable to be forgiven but also forgotten over so many years? We must wait several hundred pages and follow two diverging career paths to discover what made Tracey “place a bomb under me and blow me to smithereens”.
During one of the many fine moments when Smith’s narrator dissects and appraises her beloved dance musicals, she talks of plot being incidental, a mere conduit to the real highlight, dance. “The story,” she says, “was the price you paid for the rhythm.” The same can be said of Swing Time. Smith spins a tale and thickens her plot, but the real appeal is the way her characters move. is an Edinburgh-based critic.
Author Zadie Smith impressively pulls off one creative feat after another