Tuesday 16 January 2018

Zadie's dazzling new novel goes with a Swing

Fiction: Swing Time, Zadie Smith, Hamish Hamilton, €15.99

Zadie Smith, who has won numerous literary awards, is the author of the ambitious and exuberant new novel 'Swing Time'. Photo: David Conachy
Zadie Smith, who has won numerous literary awards, is the author of the ambitious and exuberant new novel 'Swing Time'. Photo: David Conachy

Niall MacMonagle

Zadie. In literary and media circles, no surname required. White Teeth, written while Zadie Smith was a Cambridge undergraduate, earned her a six-figure advance.

Published in 2000, when she was 24, it saw in the millennium. The paperback, reprinted 78 times, is now read in 20 languages. Today, Smith, a formidable literary presence, teaches at NYU, has won numerous awards including the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Whitbread First Novel Award, the Guardian First Book Award, and was twice named among Granta's Best of Young British Novelists.

Talent is one thing, her good looks another. Smith has condemned the media's "ridiculous" obsession with her looks, that "sinister sexist, misogynistic attitude" but last May, wearing Delpozo and Miu Miu shoes, Smith mingled with Madonna, Kim Kardashian, Naomi Campbell at the invitation-only Met Gala in New York.

She's on the cover of the current The Gentlewoman and inside the profile on Zadie is accompanied by an elegantly styled spread. She claims she spent her 20s and 30s in "a dark writing room". Time to party.

Dismissing her acclaimed novels, White Teeth, The Autograph Man and On Beauty, Smith says that NW, published when she was 36, was "the first book that I've really written as an adult."

Textured writing, rather than plot-driven story is her thing, though On Beauty piggy-backed on Forster's Howards End for its updated storyline.

Her latest novel, Swing Time, has a plot of sorts but it really is more a themed sequence of events and dazzling, different scenes.

Beginning in October 2008, it jumps back to 1982 when two working-class girls, "both the same shade of brown", meet at a dance class in North London. Autobiographical details, Smith's council-estate background, Jamaican mother, English father, a half-sister and half-brother, her love of musical theatre and jazz, colour this long, expansive novel set in London, New York and the Gambia.

In Smith's first novel to use a first-person narrative, she has deliberately chosen a dull, insipid, irritatingly unnamed narrative voice - how difficult is a "Call me Ishmael" opening? Overshadowed in childhood by "electric, charismatic, outrageously sexual" Tracey, in adulthood by mega-celebrity Aimee, "a person for whom 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".

From a "horse-faced seven-year-old" we follow her through her global Lear-jet life as a PA to savvy, driven Aimee, a stand-in for Madonna, until everything collapses. Lamin, a young handsome African, temporarily seduced by bling, becomes Aimee's lover, only to be taken from her in a complex move by our narrator. Shame and humiliation the result. When Aimee's manager tells her she's "delusional", it sums her up.

Believing that we are "defined by colour, class, money, postcode, nation, music, drugs, politics, sports, aspirations, languages, sexualities", this narrator discovers that in this "huge game of musical chairs I turned round one day and found I had no place to sit".

She needs shaking but there's no doubting Zadie's brilliance: a Willesden sunset is "of petroleum colours and quick-shunting clouds"; Nina Simone's music is superbly captured; a Nanny bathing an adopted African three-week-old baby in "a £7,000 hunk of Victorian porcelain" sink needs no further comment.

Aimee funds a girls' African school, foolishly thinking laptops are the answer, but the complex relationship between the Developed and Developing World is contextualised by an African Chief, "small, ashy, wrinkled and toothless, in a threadbare Man U T-shirt, tracksuit bottoms and plastic Nike house slippers" and Hawa, an idealistic trainee teacher, who abandons a career for marriage to a Muslim preacher. Western values have shortcomings: "a piece of my heart closed against her."

Swing Time tackles relationships, power, racial awareness in a novel preoccupied with tribalism, be it a Silicon Valley nerdy subset or a group of ethnic dancers. Dance and the tribe are the two dominant motifs but the novel, like the Ali Baba movie Tracey and her friend watched as kids, seems to swing time itself and this is one of the best things about it.

Circling back, a storyline emerges that vividly paints celebrity excess, political activism, male initiation rites, a visit to Kenwood House, a nine-year-old's birthday party at the Rockefeller Centre, Islam, a West End show, poverty tourism, and a hospice death.

It's done so well that Swing Time becomes a restless, global novel, a rewarding immersive read. Scenes that might seem superfluous make perfect sense by the end and the final image returns us to a disappointed Tracey who still has "the gift of being interesting".

Asked what to expect from Swing Time, Smith said "tap dancing, black women, money, poverty, sadness and joy!" Muted joy. Interviewed, Zadie advises: "Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand - but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied".

The epigraph to Changing Minds, her book of essays, goes, "The time to make your mind up about people is never!" Swing Time embodies both ideas.

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