Swing Time

The Week Middle East - - Arts -

by Zadie Smith

Hamish Hamil­ton 464pp £18.99 Zadie Smith’s fifth novel, Swing Time, cen­tres on two child­hood friends, both mixed race, who grow up (as Smith her­self did) in Willes­den, north­west London, in the 1970s and 1980s. They look alike (as if cut from a sin­gle “piece of tan ma­te­rial”) and, as girls, both as­pire to be dancers. Only one of the pair, Tracey, has real ta­lent – but thanks to a trou­bled home life and capri­cious per­son­al­ity, she never makes it. Mean­while, her friend, the un­named nar­ra­tor, aban­dons danc­ing and, in her 20s, be­comes PA to a glob­ally fa­mous, Madonna-like pop star. “This is the ter­ri­tory of Zadie Smith at her finest,” said Ami­natta Forna in The Guardian. Swing Time is an “un­flinch­ing por­trait of friend­ship, driven as much by jeal­ousy and com­pe­ti­tion as by love and loy­alty”. With im­pres­sive in­sight, Smith ex­plores the “sub­tle dis­tinc­tions of class and race” that not only de­fine her char­ac­ters’ tra­jec­to­ries but even­tu­ally “drive them apart”.

“As a study in root­less­ness, Swing Time is of­ten su­perb,” said Jon Day in the Fi­nan­cial Times. Since mov­ing to New York in the early 2000s, Smith has be­come in­creas­ingly pre­oc­cu­pied with evok­ing the “fine-grained minu­tiae” of north-west London. The child­hood and ado­les­cent sec­tions “crackle with life”, though the novel “loses its way slightly” when it moves away from Willes­den. “I can see why Smith chose the world of celebrity as a dra­matic con­trast with her nar­ra­tor’s hum­ble be­gin­nings,” said Sameer Rahim in Prospect. Un­for­tu­nately, Aimee, the pop star, is “thinly char­ac­terised”, and her de­sire to build a school in an un­named African coun­try “leads the novel down a blind al­ley”.

Swing Time’s African sec­tion isn’t its only fail­ure, said Houman Barekat in the Lit­er­ary Review: through­out, this novel is “drea­rily es­say­is­tic”. For the London scenes, “imag­ine a pre­cis of a decade’s worth of ar­ti­cles from The Guardian’s Com­ment is Free sec­tion, un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously shoe­horned into nar­ra­tive fic­tion”. Smith’s much-praised prose sel­dom rises above the level of “anaem­i­cally bland jour­nalese”. I dis­agree, said Taiye Se­lasi in The Ob­server: a “best friend Bil­dungsro­man” in the Elena Fer­rante mould, this is a novel that not only has “bril­liant things to say about race, class and gen­der” but also tells a “truly mar­vel­lous” story. “And the mu­sic! If one were to make a playlist of the ref­er­ences, one would have a great­est hits of black mu­sic.” For my money, Swing Time is Smith’s “finest” novel yet.

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