Book review: Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Smith poses serious questions and offers no pat answers. Photograph: Bryan Bedder/Getty
Smith poses serious questions and offers no pat answers. Photograph: Bryan Bedder/Getty
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Zadie Smith, apparently, reviewed her debut novel anonymously saying that “this kind of precocity in so young a writer has one half of the audience standing to applaud and the other half wishing, as with child performers of the past (Shirley Temple, Bonnie Langford et al), she would just stay still and shut up. White Teeth is the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired tap-dancing 10-year-old.”

It seems therefore fitting that the epigraph to Swing Time is a Hausa proverb, “when the music changes, so does the dance”, and that its two central characters first meet as children en route to their dance class. One will fail and one will succeed; or rather both will do both, twice, but not in the ways they hoped. It is a novel full of dancing – not just the ballet, tap and modern in Miss Isabel’s class, but moonwalking, pogoing up and down in Camden goth clubs, MTV proto-twerking, Fred Astaire, a West African kankurang and more. But the music has definitively changed. Swing Time bears the same relationship to White Teeth as Jonathan Safran Foer’s bittersweet recent work, Here I Am, bears to his debut: what it might lose in exuberance, it gains in political sophistication and emotional maturity.

With some justice, White Teeth was described as “Dickensian”; and it is hard to disagree given the novel’s effervescent comedy (transgenic mice, an Islamist group so incompetent they don’t realise an acronym of their organisation is KEVIN). Moreover, even when the characters were flawed, they had saving graces. By contrast, Swing Time is more like the work of George Eliot. Good intentions often mask solipsistic ambitions; selfish aims can be honourable aspirations. The best can be thoughtless to the point of narcissism, and the least likeable can be seen to have valid reasons for their hard-heartedness or blinkered opinions. It is a true, and beautifully executed tragicomedy.

The narrator’s life intersects primarily with three women. There is her mother, whose political consciousness is also a kind of social climbing; her friend Tracey, born on the dodgier part of the estate and looking to celebrity as a means of escape; and later on, her employer, Aimee, a kind of allusive amalgamation of Madonna, Kylie Minogue and Angelina Jolie. The nuances of class distinction are explored with even more subtlety than they were in NW. Aimee has decided that she wants to open a school in West Africa. Her logic is explained with understated surrealism: from “we have to be the change we want to see”, she and her peers “feel an obligation to do something good with their own good fortune”. “If you followed the logic all the way to the end of the revolving belt,” the narrator muses, “then after a few miles you arrived at a new idea, that wealth and morality are in essence the same thing, for the more money a person had, then the more goodness – or potential for goodness – a person possessed.” Her mother, turning her zeal into a career, finds this naïve, and there is much in the narrative where innocent idealism and difficult pragmatic decisions crunch like an arthritic joint. Tracey acts as a dark mirror for these ideas; and it would give away too much of the very elegant plotting to elaborate. The novel places certain words and images with immense precision; so a childhood story about the Sankofa bird is reiterated towards the end in the name of a new character; certain musicals loop through the narrative at key moments.

Class, race, ideas of Africa as despotic playground and origin of humanity, how popular culture moulds and distorts us, protest versus government, intervention versus self-sufficiency, the appeal of radical Islam to an uprooted generation, the existential bankruptcy of the West: Smith tackles all of this, with both boldness, in that they are foregrounded, and bravery, in that she poses serious questions and offers no pat answers. The “issues” never feel programmatic or polemical in the manner which marred Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s otherwise fascinating Americanah. The ideas are choreographed with bravura: if White Teeth was Busby Berkeley, Swing Time is Pina Bausch.

There is a tone of wry ruefulness throughout. On a flight, one of Aimee’s other PRs is reading novels for prospective film projects and pronounces on the literary world thus: “‘Zippy’ – which was good; ‘Important’ – which was very good; ‘Controversial’ – which could be either good or bad, you never knew; or ‘Lidderary’, which was pronounced with a sigh and an eye roll and was very bad.” Although this is smart, it is also true on two levels. It does reflect the banality of some of our criticism, but I doubt any reader would not find Swing Time to be zippy, important, controversial and literary in the more common senses of those words. As well as the shrewd observation and sly satire we expect from Smith, this has profundity and genuine purpose, as well as some of the most heart-stoppingly lyrical writing of her career thus far. At times, the lines from Stevie Smith’s aching poem, The Frog Prince echoed in my head: “Only disenchanted people/Can be heavenly”.

*Swing Time by Zadie Smith is published by Hamish Hamilton, £18.99