Swing Time by Zadie Smith

A former student of Zadie Smith’s recently tweeted a telling anecdote. Some years back, while teaching creative writing at New York’s Columbia University (she’s now tenured at NYU) Smith handed out a laughable, pitiful, woefully sophomoric short story, and had the whole class critique it to pieces before admitting that it was one of her own.

She was trying to foster a faith that bad writing can lead to good, and nurture the humility required to make it happen. Hard to imagine the likes of say, Martin Amis, inviting ridicule to get that point across. In an equally revealing magazine interview ahead of her latest book, Smith told friend and fellow novelist Jeffrey Eugenides that she has never possessed “the confidence a lot of male writers seem to have”, and has always felt “very cringey” about herself and her work. But this may be a source of her strength.

If White Teeth was perhaps the most sensational debut in British fiction since Amis’s The Rachel Papers, it also introduced Smith as a newer order of precocious London-born literary talent – mixed-race, raised on a council estate, educated at King’s College, Cambridge, acutely self-conscious and self-doubting. Rather than overwrite those internal obstructions to the creative process, she folded them into the texture of subsequent novels. Swing Time, her fifth, is also the first to be related in first person, through an unnamed narrator whose early life story echoes that of the author.

The child of an English father and Jamaican mother (soon to be divorced) she grows up relatively poor in 1980s Kilburn, entranced by the same old black and white movie musicals and old showbiz biographies that Smith herself loved as a kid. “He’s not doing that right,” Fred Astaire is quoted as saying when watching himself on screen, which speaks to the narrator’s own feeling that “it was important to treat oneself as a kind of stranger, to remain unattached and unprejudiced in one’s own case.”

And so she does, more or less, in recounting her friendship with Tracey – a much more defiant and defensive girl whose greater talent as a dancer seems to give her a better chance of spinning away from their shared background, and evading the various systemic snares laid out for people of their colour, class and gender.

The narrator, for her part, offers only passive, self-destructive resistance to the path of education set down by her autodidactic mother, an aspiring socialist politician with a hint of bourgeois affectation.

Instead, she drifts into employment with a world-famous Australian pop star, which comes to resemble a kind of indentured servitude. Aimee, as she’s known, is a fearsomely plausible creation modelled on unknowable public figures like Madonna and Angelina Jolie. Impatient with logistics and blind to consequences, she pumps her vast wealth and energy into building a school for girls in an unidentified West African nation (though the political and geographic details make fairly clear it’s The Gambia).

In Aimee’s world the time is always right now, and timing itself is “a mystical force, a form of fate operating at a global and cosmic level”. The narrator, meanwhile, half hopes for some spiritual awakening near the site of her ancestors’ first enslavement, but cannot locate herself within the complex patchwork of tribal ethnicities and economic castes. To the Sere, Wolof, Mandinka and Serahuli she is basically just another white westerner.

Smith covers a lot of years and a lot of ground here. Fame and failure, poverty and opportunity, white privilege and cultural appropriation, public and private shame. “A suspicious emotion, so ancient,” thinks the narrator of the latter, the kind of terse observation that abounds through the book. Her narrow, tentative register keeps the breadth and depth of the story in focus.

She’s possessed of a great singing voice – mostly unused, and shown off only when drunk and angry by way of a Nina Simone number in a New York nightclub – but is not given to grand lyrical flourishes. Instead we get these short, reflexive insights, so quick and quiet that they almost sound muttered. Where Tracey soon grows tired of the old stage musicals with their top hats and tails, the narrator is attracted to their elegance: “I liked the way it hid pain.” Watching Fred and Ginger she wonders if “all friendships – all relations – involve this discreet and mysterious exchange of qualities, this exchange of power?”.

Subtle and unshowy as it is, there’s a clear sense of rhythm and balance to the choreography of the book. She freely draws on familiar conventions of Victorian and Edwardian plotting while rendering her changing scenery in tactile, realistic detail. From the creeping meanness of the Thatcher years, to the feckless hedonism of the Britpop era, to our present age of instant outrage, secrets, betrayals and shocking revelations are delivered by handwritten letters, exposed in emails, spread on social media.

Some readers might recognise themselves more readily than others in the narrator’s struggles to work out who she’s supposed to be, what she’s supposed to represent. But Smith’s sense of timing is impeccable, and her feeling for time itself – she’s perfectly in sync with the joy and sadness evoked by memories rewound and replayed like old musicals on worn-out VHS tapes, or repeated in short clips on YouTube.

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