Fren­e­mies spin a daz­zling tale

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Mal­colm Forbes

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.