by Zadie Smith
One of the central characters in Zadie Smith’s Swing Time is Aimee. A deadish ringer for Kylie Minogue (with a dash, perhaps, of Madonna), she’s a world-famous pop star from Australia, not that you’d know this on first hearing. “She did not have an Australian accent, not anymore, but neither was it quite American or quite British, it was global: it was New York and Paris and Moscow and LA and London combined.”
One could say something similar about Zadie Smith’s body of work. She famously took the literary world by storm with her funny, larger-than-life debut, White Teeth (2000), which was set in London but felt (to use her own word) essentially global. Bangladeshi, Jamaican, Jewish and Anglo-Saxon characters fell in and out of love with award-winning brio.
The follow-up added further voices through a hero, Alex-Li Tandem, who was British-Jewish-Chinese. On Beauty (2005) transported Smith’s work, like Smith herself, to America, before her next novel, the messy, unsatisfying NW (2012), returned her home (whatever that means in this instance) to Willesden, in northwest London.
In this context, the title of Swing Time feels unusually grounded, an explicit allusion to George Stevens’ 1936 musical starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. What proves rather more complicated is the evolving response of Smith’s unnamed narrator. Her unabashed adoration of the film as a child is undermined years later when she realises that Astaire dances one famous scene (with his own three exhausted shadows) in blackface: “I’d managed to block the childhood image from my memory: the rolling eyes, the white gloves, the Bojangles grin. I felt very stupid, closed the laptop and went to sleep.”
Here, in a nutshell, is Swing Time’s grand arc: the strange, mutable and constantly shifting development of an individual consciousness over time. The ramifications are political, social, personal (friends, relationships, employment) and racial, all wrapped up in one of Smith’s most accessible and enjoyable stories.
We know from the start that it ends with our narrator hiding out in a London apartment in “humiliation”, though it takes the entire novel to explain how this happens. For now, it’s enough to know that she has reporters on her tail, and is suffering under that most #firstworld of #problems: a self-imposed online ban.
The narrator’s own beginning is in the familiar Smithean locale of north London’s sociocultural melting pot. Born to a white father, who is loving if passive, and a black mother with fierce aspirations (intellectually, politically, socially), she possesses strong awareness of how the world is traditionally categorised (male-female, black-white, rich-poor), even as her own experience blurs the chess game of race, gender, class, politics and home.
The novel’s first plot crisis is signposted in a fashion worthy of Thomas Hardy. Our narrator and her spirited, troublesome and perpetually dancing best friend, Tracey, are filmed dancing suggestively to a hit by non other than Aimee herself: “and by doing so put in motion a chain of cause and effect which, more than a quarter of a century later, has come to feel like fate.”
Smith jumps quickly to the next link in the chain. Working for YTV (a youth rip-off of MTV), our heroine proves a perfect fit (like Smith herself) for that most postmodern, pick ’n’ mix moment of the late 1990s. She loves A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory, cheesy pop and classic jazz singers: Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone. She doesn’t dress so much as remix her clothes: “Nostalgic and futuristic, hip hop and indie, rrriot girl and violent femme.”
Her choice of A Tribe Called Quest T-shirt almost ends her relationship with Aimee before it begins: “Wearing another artist’s shirt when you are meeting an artist? Professional.” Aimee pouts somewhat grandiloquently on entering the YTV offices. In fact, she comes to admire our narrator’s pluck, and hires her as her personal assistant. After a slow start, the pair bond on a day out at London’s Kenwood House and work together for the best part of a decade.
For our narrator, this work means helping with everything from dance routines to Aimee’s chaotic personality, and publicity of her overheated personal life: two children by two quickly dispatched fathers. Weary of abstract political engagement, Aimee decides to “work with communities at a community level”.
This means “the African project”: building a school in an unidentified West African nation. In a sub-plot that echoes recent “philanthropic” efforts by the likes of Madonna and Angelina Jolie, Aimee adopts a baby in controversial circumstances. From this post-post-colonial transgression, we descend towards our narrator’s eventual humiliation.
As also befits the title, Swing Time moves effortlessly between present and past. This is partly in keeping with a generation whose outlook was shaped by video players: “We were the first generation to have, in our own homes, the means to re- and forward-wind reality … [to] see what-has-been become what-is or what-will-be.”
This partly conflates obvious divides between childhood and adults: our narrator’s mother is both the most mature and immature character on show. But it also reflects the central idea that no matter our apparent personal evolution, we can never entirely shake off our past – whether this is inherited from parents, race and culture, the memory of a silly childish dance that returns to haunt us, or the collective memory of colonisation.
The leaps and retrogressions are managed effortlessly, building and deflating expectation with skill. Compared with the earlier books, the prose here feels laid-back, not striving after affect. This personifies a narrator whose narrative style is easy on the ear, but occasionally comes close to gossipy prattle: waves of recollection of dance classes, formative sexual experimentation or excruciating birthday trips to the cinema. If she emerges as hard to know, that could be because she tends to observe life from the sidelines. As she says at the outset: “I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.”
As with Jonathan Safran Foer’s recent Here I Am , I was more convinced by the vivid, intimate portraits of family life than the more expansive, international and self-consciously ambitious segments. What lingers in the mind, and indeed in Smith’s plot, are those intense early experiences: the bubbling best friend, the mother desperate to move onwards and upwards. Swing Time is a fine novel, but is curiously best when playing it close to home – wherever that happens to be.