Zadie Smith is such a great author. She’s churned out not one but several excellent, and quite different, novels over the years and I had a great time reading this latest one.
I found Swing Time easier to get into than her previous NW, although I loved that too. It tells the story of two girls, who are clearly identified, althoug the heroine remains nameless throughout, and are not (immediately?) veiled by the haze of drugs and general confusion so successfully introduced in the opening part of NW. So you learn that they both live in flats in the same London neighbourhood, go the same school, attend the same dance class every week and they also have a similar skin tone, all of which points crop up regularly in the telling of their lives. Inevitably, there are many differences between them too. Their family background comes to mind straight away, for example. The narrator heroine enjoys a warm relationship with her Dad, a more complicated one with her Mum, all is not roses in her household but you nonetheless get the clear impression that her home s is a far more stable environment than her friend Tracey’s.
Their eventual educational and career paths diverge quite quickly too, the narrator finds herself almost by accident in a job at the heart of a buzzy media job in 1990s London after a spell at university, while Tracey, the better dancer of the two childhood friends, goes to stage school and gets parts in London musicals. That’s the early part of the plot, told in a bare bones this-is-what-happens-fashion. But of course, there is Zadie Smith’s trademark all over the text: elements of zeitgeist generated by profoundly personal anecdotes and acute observations of people, their behaviours and feelings, distilled into exquisitely written vignettes.
The plot moves to the protagonist going on to become a global music star’s assistant and charts the various crises that go with that job, quite a few taking place under different skies (Togo, US et al).With its brief insights into the mindset of a big name celebrity, this part of the story is both infused with glamour and commonplace, therefore making it entirely believable. Tracey is left behind somewhat in the narrator’s life and takes a back seat for a while in the book; the scene to her life remains firmly in London.
In terms of character development, the heroine’s Mum – pillar of the community turned politician – makes for interesting reading, as does in his more shadowy way, the less detailed figure of her father. The treatment of Aimee the star is subtle too, a mix of shades of what one would think are “typical star” traits, with others revealing her to be sometimes more grounded in reality than her assistant. Tracey is also analysed extensively (except that Zadie Smith never does anything that brutal, it’s infinitely more delicate and complete than the term “analysis” suggests). She’s a sort of anti-twin and crops us regularly in the narrative, most notably when the heroine drags a maybe boyfriend to see Guys and Dolls because she’s recognised her friend on a poster advertising the show.
A final thought: I find that as in other Zadie Smith novels, there is a certain distance from others manifest in the personality of the character whose voice is telling the story, there is a little holding back, a little coldness, even. This doesn’t turn me off at all, I see it more as an uncompromising, sometimes slightly uncomfortable, but never judgmental appraisal of the business of being human.