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.