Saturday 3 December 2016

A new satisfying maturity at the expense of comic zest

Fiction: Swing Time, Zadie Smith, Hamish Hamilton, pbk, 464 pages, €16.99

James Walton

Published 27/11/2016 | 02:30

Zadie Smith has published her fifth novel, Swing Time
Zadie Smith has published her fifth novel, Swing Time
Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Our reviewer admires the poise of Zadie Smith's new novel but misses the infectious brio of her earlier books

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Aged 24, Zadie Smith famously went from unknown writer to literary star in a single bound, with the publication of White Teeth in 2000. The book had all the characteristics of an overhyped debut - a photogenic young black female author, who went from her local comp to Cambridge! An insider's account of a Britain ignored by other novelists! An approving line from Salman Rushdie on the cover! - except for one: it wasn't overhyped.

In the years since, some more severe critics, among them Zadie Smith, have suggested that White Teeth's celebration of multicultural north-west London was a little too celebratory, that its characterisation sometimes shaded into caricature. While these criticisms aren't entirely unfair, rereading White Teeth 16 years on, it's impossible not to be swept along by the thrilling sense of a new author fearlessly giving rein to a prodigious comic talent.

The books that followed have all been set, partly or wholly, in the same part of London, but Smith has progressed towards greater seriousness and maturity, a progression confirmed by Swing Time, her fifth novel, where the tone is far calmer and the treatment of similar themes a lot more measured than in her early work. But precisely for that reason, the book raises the question once again of whether something has been lost along the way.

Like her previous novel, the starkly titled NW (2012), Swing Time is about two female friends raised on the kind of housing estates where Smith herself started out. Both are mixed race, their "shade of brown… exactly the same". But with Smith's Austen-like sensitivity to social gradations, it definitely matters that the unnamed narrator is the posher of the two. Her family's flat is in a low-rise block, her father is hard-working and her black mother has "a terrific instinct for middle-class mores". ("No plastic flowers for us… and no crystal figurines.") Tracey, by contrast, lives in "a high-rise estate of poor reputation", with a father in and out of prison and a mother who is "obese, afflicted with acne… her thin blonde hair pulled back very tightly in what I knew my mother would call a 'Kilburn facelift'."

Even so, after the two meet in a dance class when they're seven, it's the fiercer and more talented Tracey who seems destined for greater things. For a while, in fact, it looks as if Swing Time may be in the tradition of such novels as The Great Gatsby, Brideshead Revisited and Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels, where a resignedly overshadowed narrator tells us about a more charismatic friend. But, as it turns out, this is only one strand in a book that examines many of Smith's familiar themes - race, fame, pop culture, female self-delusion and the whole tricky business of roots - from an impressive variety of perspectives.

The first section is the most straightforward, with Tracey and the narrator nervously negotiating class divisions. In one particularly excruciating scene, they arrive, badly overdressed, as the only black girls at a 10th birthday party in the sort of house that has "a private garden, a giant jam-jar full of 'spare change' and a Swatch watch as big as a human man hanging on a bedroom wall". From there, the time structure starts to alternate (or swing) between the grown-up narrator looking back on her relationship with Tracey, which grows increasingly awkward after adolescence, and reflecting on her surprising new life as the jet-setting PA to a Madonna-like global celebrity called Aimee.

Despite her prominence in the novel, Aimee remains quite shadowy, but my guess is that this is a deliberate ploy, showing that one of the costs of fame on that scale is the loss of a distinct self. At first, the narrator's tasks are routine enough: "I scheduled abortions, hired dog walkers, ordered flowers, wrote Mother's Day cards, applied creams, administered injections, squeezed spots, wiped very occasional break-up tears, and so on." But then Aimee decides to build a girls' school in a village in Gambia (for the purposes, naturally, of "empowering" its pupils), leaving much of the work to the narrator, and so handily letting Smith broaden her traditional concerns from Kilburn to the world.

Not all of the individual African scenes work as well as the rest of the book. The narrator scorns "poverty tourists" - "you know, those kinds of students who'd come back with their stupid year-off ethnic trousers and… 'hand-carved' overpriced statuary made in some factory in Kenya" - but Smith seems in danger of becoming one herself. Too often we get the usual wide-eyed travelogue stuff about potholed roads, chaotic public transport, villagers in Manchester United shirts and levels of hospitality and joy that shame the rich West.

Taken as a whole, though, they certainly succeed in amplifying the novel's themes - mainly through neat, unforced parallels. The narrator's life, for example, is clearly as unimaginable to the average rural Gambian as Aimee's is to the average Westerner (or as the lives of the other guests at that 10th birthday party were to two black estate girls). And the incomprehension works both ways. Recalling her well-meaning but naïve London teachers, the narrator had explained how they "gave us seeds in the spring to 'plant in our gardens', or asked us, after the summer break, to write a page about 'where you went on holiday'" - even though many of the pupils had neither gardens nor holidays.

Unfortunately, as a wise aid worker points out, she makes much the same mistake in her own plans for the Gambian schoolgirls: "Homework! Have you been to their homes? […] What do you think these children do when they get home? Study? Do you think they have time to study?" Towards the end, there's also the mortifying revelation that, all the while she'd proudly assumed a natural bond between herself and her fellow black people in Gambia, the villagers thought her white.

Meanwhile, after the early promise that gained Tracey a place at stage school, her dancing career fizzles out. During the Aimee years, the narrator watches her friend as a dazzling chorus girl in a West-End production of Showboat - one of several musicals mentioned where the racial issues are ticklish. (Another is Swing Time itself, where Fred Astaire dances in blackface.) None the less, Tracey is last seen back in the flat where she grew up, her professional dancing days long behind her, with three children by three different fathers.

Through all of this runs another recurring, possibly autobiographical theme of Smith's recent fiction: the ambivalent feelings that come with escaping your background and making it. In NW, Keisha Blake, another comp-educated, bookish, black teenager from a north-west London estate, changes her first name to Natalie (rather as Sadie Smith changed hers to Zadie) and ends up a successful lawyer. But however hard she tries - and illogical though she knows she's being - she can never reconcile herself to being "the girl [who] done good from their thousand-kid madhouse".

The same anxiety is experienced by the narrator here who envies Aimee's ability to accept "everything that happened to her as her destiny, no more surprised or alienated to be who she is than I imagine Cleopatra was to be Cleopatra". (It might even be that Aimee is on to something when she accuses her PA of suffering from "survivor's guilt".)

One story that haunts her throughout the novel is the real-life case of two students mugged on Hungerford Bridge and thrown into the Thames: "one lived and one died". At first sight, this seems a fairly clunking symbol of her and Tracey's different fates - but the longer the book goes on, the less clear it becomes which of them represents the drowned student and which the saved.

Ultimately, Swing Time manages to turn all these ambiguities into a novel that's coherent, deeply satisfying and endlessly thoughtful. What it can't be called, though, is rollicking. At the beginning of Smith's career, one of the few dissenting voices belonged to that most high-minded of critics, James Wood, who felt White Teeth lacked "moral seriousness" - a charge that certainly can't be made about her later fiction. (Unsurprisingly, he was a big fan of NW). Reading Swing Time, it's hard not to imagine what mischievous fun the Zadie Smith of White Teeth and its underestimated successor, The Autograph Man, would have had with, say, the whiteys in Africa or Aimee's behavioural excesses. Here, however, Smith prefers to say interesting things about them; what satire there is feels more sombre, controlled and even slightly earnest.

In one scene, the narrator's father meets Tracey for the first time in a few years, just as she's making it in the dance world. He is puzzled and disappointed by her formality: "a brand-new style of hers that seemed to have nothing to do with the wild, funny, courageous girl he thought he had known. It belonged to a different girl altogether, from a different neighbourhood, a different world". Well, substitute "writer" for "girl" and those who loved Smith's early work might wonder if this is intended to apply - maybe even ruefully - to Smith herself.

Indeed, at times her new novel feels a bit like Brideshead Revisited in another way, with the reckless, irresistible comedy of the author's early books laid aside in favour of something deeper, more heartfelt, but less stirringly energetic. Of course, any writer can write whatever they like, especially when they're as good as Smith.

Even so, Waugh did go on to reconcile both modes in his Sword of Honour trilogy - and my own hope is that one day she, too, will find a way to combine the seriousness of her recent novels with the comic zest of her early ones.

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