A new novel by multi-talented Zadie Smith is a literary event and deserves to be marked. Swing Time [London: Hamish Hamilton, 2016] is a major event but does it match earlier novels in quality and originality? Broadly yes it does but this is not Smith’s greatest novel.
The story is narrated by one of two childhood girl friends who grew up together, grew apart and although their paths crossed from time to time they never recovered that sorority they once knew. The two ‘brown’ girls, both mixed race Londoners, are keen on dancing but while Tracey has some real talent her friend has musicality but no innate dancing skills. Tracey focuses on becoming a dancer and does make it into the chorus line. Her friend goes to Uni and finds herself working as a PA to an international pop singing star who wants to do good with her millions. Used to getting her own way, as is often the case with multi-millionaires, pop star Aimee is not a good listener and her project in West Africa does not prosper as it might have done. Our narrator is fired – in effect for stealing Aimee’s toy boy.
Around this narrative, Smith weaves fascinating pictures of a self-educating striving black mother who makes a career in public service, and of Tracey’s white mother beaten down by the ‘system’ and of two North London brown girls in the 21st century. All in in all it is a fascinating story that holds the reader’s attention and springs a few surprises. Worth the read but not Zadie Smith’s best, I fear.