‘Swing Time’ by Zadie Smith tells the story of two mixed-race girls, an unnamed narrator and her friendship with Tracey who grow up together on neighbouring council estates in north-west London in the 1980s. From Fred Astaire to Michael Jackson, music and dance dominate their lives but it is only Tracey who has the real talent to pursue a career as a dancer. The narrator goes to university and works as a personal assistant for mononymous international pop star Aimee who decides to set up a school for girls in west Africa. The story alternates between the past and present and even though the girls spend a considerable time apart in later years, Tracey’s influence can always be felt.
I have had slightly mixed feelings about Smith’s novels in the past. I found NW a bit sparse and White Teeth sometimes seemed quite self-conscious as a debut novel. However, even though her fifth novel shares a lot of similarities with her previous work, returning to the familiar setting of Smith’s home turf near Kilburn as well as equally familiar themes surrounding race, class and gender, I can safely say that ‘Swing Time’ is the first of her books that has really clicked with me.
The girls’ relationship and power struggle is sometimes reminiscent of the dynamic between Elena and Lila in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels in its similarly nuanced depiction of female friendship from childhood through to early adulthood. Although the scenes in West Africa provide the main setpiece in the second half, it is the episodes set during the girls’ childhood which contain some of the most astute social commentary with powerful observations about identity. The satire of the narrator stumbling into employment shortly after university and working for a vapid pop star (who must surely be largely based on Madonna) with exceptionally naive assumptions about humanitarian aid is also very perceptive.
As is the case in Smith’s previous novels, there is a sense of aimlessness and vagueness in the plot – the narrator is unnamed, as is the African country she visits with Aimee, and she drifts through life with very little direction allowing Aimee to dominate. I normally struggle with books which lack a certain amount of structure but Smith’s ear for authentic dialogue is excellent as is her deft portrayal of the main characters and I felt that these aspects were strong enough in ‘Swing Time’ to carry the novel and its weighty themes whilst avoiding a patronising or lecturing tone.
‘Swing Time’ has been billed as a novel for the millennial generation but I hope its appeal will reach much further than that. Many thanks to Penguin Books for sending me a review copy via NetGalley. ‘Swing Time’ will be published in the UK on 15th November.