A new Zadie Smith book is, in my life, something to get excited about. Her latest, Swing Time, begins in the early nineties with the friendship between the narrator and Tracey, two mixed-race London girls with a Saturday morning dance class in common. Later, story expands to focus on the narrator in her adult life, working for a pseudo-Britney Spears pop star.
I loved the early part of Swing Time, with its focus on the two young girls, alongside Smith’s seamlessly interwoven commentary about race, culture, friendship, family and London itself. The depiction of friendship between young girls is universal, and there’s plenty that’s infused with pathos, from Tracey’s insistence that her absent father is a dancer with Michael Jackson rather than just a parent with no interest in his daughter, to the narrator’s realisation that her friend’s dancing talent vastly exceeds her own. I was also really engaged in the narrator’s relationship with her gloriously complex mother, whose campaign to better herself through education occasionally appears pompous and creates distance between herself and her daughter.
When the timeframe switched to the later period, in which the narrator takes up a job with a self-aggrandising pop star with an aim to save Africa, my interest level dipped slightly. Tracey and the narrator suffered a childhood indignity as a consequence of one of Aimee’s songs, and the interconnectedness of the two timeframes is pleasing, but the whole storyline lacked the emotive impact of the earlier sections. As the two periods begin to alternate, the disparity in interest became more notable. When the plot moves away from Aimee’s tedious pop star antics and into her charitable work in an unspecified African country (The Guardian’s review says it’s the Gambia, and they probably know more about this than I do), things do become more interesting, but these sections seemed to me to have so little to do with the first part of the novel that I felt like I was reading two completely different books: both worthy and interesting, but awkward companions.
As a side note, I have developed a loathing for the annoying trope of not giving the narrator a name. It makes it really hard to review a book and makes me paranoid about having just failed to notice what the name actually was. Sadly, Swing Time falls into this category. I expect there’s a clever point to be made about the fact that the narrator has no real identity of her own but that stretches my patience over a couple of hundred pages.
Ultimately, Zadie Smith’s worst day is better than nearly everyone else’s best, and Swing Time is a book that provides plenty of entertainment as well as thought-provoking content. The first strand of the story really grabbed my attention and, as Smith brings the story back to this late on, my ultimate response to Swing Time is positive.