Zadie Smith choreographs a provocative novel about the arts of dance and survival, integrity and friendship.
The unnamed narrator in Smith’s agile and discerning bildungsroman is entranced and provoked by a Fred Astaire dance number in the movie Swing Time. “Swing time” is also a feat her narrator performs as she pivots from the disastrous present back to the past as she tries to understand her plummet by telling her story and that of her childhood best friend, Tracey. Though passionate and knowledgeable about dance, especially pioneering African American tap stars Jeni LeGon and the Nicholas Brothers, the narrator doesn’t have the body for it, while Tracey has the requisite build and drive. Both “brown girls” lived in a London housing project in the early 1980s—the narrator with her ambitiously political Jamaican mother and her laid-back white father, Tracey with her white mother, while longing for her black father whose appearances were infrequent and fraught. Close as they are, the girls are destined for diverging paths as Tracey stakes her future on dance, and the narrator muddles through a goth phase and college, then lucks into a job as a personal assistant to an international pop star, the fiercely willful, strikingly pale Aimee, who hijacks her life.
Smith’s narrator’s anxiety and recalcitrance are legion, but through her omnivorous senses, wary skepticism, and ballistic wit we experience vitally detailed settings and dramatic and ludicrous situations that put to the test assumptions about self and community, creativity and activism. The Ginger Rogers to various Fred Astaires—from her mother to Tracey to Aimee—she recounts her disconcerting misadventures in London, New York, and, most intensely, a small, poor, tyrannized West African country in which Aimee decides to build a girls’ school, while incorporating African dance into her act. As the narrator struggles to find her way through a maze of morally dubious desires and demands, Smith postulates equations of power in relationships complicated by race, class, gender, celebrity, culture, politics, and religion.
With homage to dance as a unifying force, arresting observations (“elegance attracted me . . . . I liked the way it hid pain”), exceptionally diverse and magnetizing characters, and lashing satire, Swing Time is an acidly funny, fluently global, and head-spinning novel about the quest for meaning, exaltation, and love. Excitement always surrounds much-lauded Smith’s books (NW, 2012), and this tale of friendship lost and found is going to be big.