Swing Time is the latest Zadie Smith novel, published in November to great fanfare. I reviewed NW a few weeks ago, following its TV adaptation and liked it without being blown away. Reviews of Swing Time have been more positive overall and so I came to this hoping to find what I had wanted from NW.
This is the story of two mixed race girls growing up in Smith’s home territory of Northwest London. Our protagonist (unnamed – a pet hate of mine) is the daughter of a proud black woman, intellectual and wanting more from the life she has. Her father is a postie, happy in the love he has for his wife and daughter. Tracey lives on the neighbouring estate. Her black father is in and out of prison, hardly ever at home. Tracey’s mother is on disability, a fat white woman who spends every penny she has on her daughter. The pair meet as children at dance class; Tracey is a talented dancer while our girl has flat feet but loves the music. They spend hours watching old movies, the dance routines, obsessively monitoring each step Fred Astaire makes and thrilled to see a brown girl like themselves in the background. The ‘Mum, there’s a black person on tele!’ phenomenon that I can identify with. I loved these scenes, school days and a friendship tested by the playground hierarchy. I would have been happy for the book to remain in London to be honest.
But on to the other half of this novel. Our girl grows up and ends up as the personal assistant to mega pop star Aimee. A Madonna type (in her Malawi days), Aimee has enough money to consider herself all powerful and decides to find a country, a village, worthy of her attention and wealth. The Gambia is the winner and she drags her team to this small village where she will build a school for the girls who she decides are being looked over in favour of the boys. Our protagonist, through her perceived black heritage, is placed on the ground to liaise with the locals alongside more experienced members of Aimee’s entourage. I found these scenes interesting without learning much about either the character or the local culture. These chapters were interspersed evenly with flashbacks into the past in London, so just as I began to get comfortable with the African cast of characters, I was whisked back to university in Brighton a decade earlier, or to a scene backstage in a West End theatre.
A problem that I had with NW was that, with the exception of Felix’s section, I felt quite removed from the characters. I was missing an emotional connection, and I had exactly the same experience with Swing Time. Without a name for the person I’m investing hours of time into I already felt at a disadvantage, but she is not a likeable character either. She never matures, even in her mid-thirties making stupid mistakes and neglecting the relationships that should matter to her. There was a coldness to her actions, and a childishness to her reactions to others. She looked down on Tracey by the end, but really they weren’t that different. Unsympathetic characters can work, and I’m not saying that this character didn’t, only that I did want a bit more of an arc with her than just following her around.
There is a lot to enjoy in this novel and, as always, Smith raises a lot of very interesting points. However, I began to wish that she’d choose one and delve into it. There was lots of skimming and I began to wonder if there had been a huge edit on this book. Because of the back and forth nature of the novel I did start to flit across the less interesting passages to try and follow up on the bit I’d just read. I missed how her father died, though I remember a paragraph on his funeral earlier in the book (again, because we jump forwards and back in time constantly I was waiting for this to be revealed later). The relationship between the main character and her mother was intriguing and I wanted more of this, more of Tracey, more of the village if that section was to be believed. Basically, I felt that this was either two novels compressed into one, or a hundred pages short of being a triumph.