Zadie Smith’s “Swing Time”—a successful return to her roots

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Swing Time by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99)

VS Naipaul knows how hard it is to write fiction in the wake of an early success. His buoyant masterpiece A House for Mr Biswas (1961), drawing on his childhood in Trinidad, came out while he was still in his twenties. The later novels—whatever their virtues—never recaptured that initial comic exuberance. In 2008 Naipaul was asked whether he sympathised with an author in a similar predicament. Zadie Smith’s first novel White Teeth (2000), set in the multicultural north-west London in which she grew up, brimmed with optimism. It was a bestseller that turned her into a literary celebrity at 25. “The problem for someone like that,” said Naipaul of Smith, “is where do you go, how do you move? If you’ve consumed your material in your first book, what do you do? All those stages are full of anguish.”

Smith has a complex—even anguished—relationship with the book that made her name. Nowadays she can’t read White Teeth without, in her own words, being “overwhelmed with nausea.” She needn’t be so repulsed. Smith’s debut was a joyfully assured performance full of jokes (some good, some corny), and propelled by her impressive way with dialogue. It was also, as she is now quick to acknowledge, cartoonish, irritatingly smart-aleck and structurally a bit of a mess, groaning under the influence of Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis. Over the last 16 years, Smith has mused in essays and lectures over how to sharpen her gifts and develop her insights. As she ruefully admitted in the foreword to her 2009 essay collection Changing My Mind, “When you are first published at a young age, your writing grows with you—in public.”

Her second novel, The Autograph Man (2002), tackled a Jewish-Chinese man obsessed with celebrities. Part Saul Bellow, part Lenny Bruce, it had all the energy of White Teeth but little of its charm. On Beauty (2005), as the portentous title indicates, was designed to be Smith’s serious novel. Slavishly structured on Howards End by EM Forster—her fellow King’s College, Cambridge alumnus—and set at a fictional version of Harvard, it chaotically threw together race relations and Rembrandt. It lost out on the Booker Prize by a whisker. For some, though, it felt like Smith—still not 30!—was deploying her enviable linguistic gifts to mask her gauche sensibility. She later said that she wrote most of the 500-page novel in a five-month essay crisis. For such a successful author, she is winningly honest about her own flaws.

After a seven-year gap teaching literature and starting a family, Smith returned to fiction with NW (2012) which, like her new novel Swing Time, revisits her old stomping ground in north-west London. (Kilburn is to Smith what Combray was to Proust.) But though the setting is the same, the tone was very different. She seemed determined to rebuke the naivety of her earlier works. NW followed four characters who fear their best days are behind them. Most vivid was Felix, a young black man and ex-drug addict who is stabbed to death after asking two men to make room for a pregnant woman on the Tube. NW was a bleak work, its style was disjointed and experimental. The presiding literary influence was not Forster’s baggy humanism but the angular modernism of Virginia Woolf. It was an unsettling work, revealing an author no longer at ease.

Of all her novels, Swing Time is the least overtly indebted to another writer—and is all the better for it. Yet noting some of the terms that crop up just in the first 10 pages (“humiliation,” “shame,” “bitter,” “melancholy,” “contempt,” “bad taste”) the shadow of VS Naipaul looms. Parodied in White Teeth as Sir RV Saraswati, the author of A Stitch in Time, “a bitter-sweet tale of the last days of empire,” Naipaul is taken more seriously in Swing Time. After Biswas, one of his major subjects became the consequences of becoming a successful but dislocated writer. What does it mean to travel from poor Trinidad to wealthy England? Will he always feel the outsider’s shame? Smith has gone on a similar journey, from a mixed-race working-class family in an unfashionable London suburb to conquering literary London, and now New York, where she gets to interview Jay-Z. (One perk I suspect Naipaul wouldn’t relish.)

Swing Time’s unnamed narrator is, like Smith, a mixed-race woman born in 1975 and raised in Willesden. Most of the novel—certainly its most absorbing parts—follows her childhood friendship with Tracey, also mixed-race, with whom she shares a passion for dancing and Hollywood musicals. We begin at the end, learning that the two women have fallen out. Tracey, who has failed to make it as a dancer, tries to destroy the narrator, now working as the jet-set assistant of an Australian pop star. In an email to her old friend she writes triumphantly: “Now everyone knows who you really are.” The fear of being unmasked as fraudulent is at the heart of Swing Time. When the narrator crosses the bridge at Embankment, in a recurring memory, she recalls the story of two students thrown into the Thames by muggers. “One lived and one died. I’ve never understood how the survivor managed it, in the darkness, in the absolute cold, with the terrible shock and his shoes on.” Swing Time is a survivor’s tale.

In 1982, the dance-obsessed girls are seven years old and inseparable. They have the same brown skin, “as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both,” but, the narrator says, “my face was ponderous and melancholy, with a long, serious nose.” The narrator’s black mother is an autodidact and her white father works for the Royal Mail; Tracey’s white mother is obese with a “Kilburn facelift,” her black father hardly around. Even as a child, Tracey senses what a difference this makes. “When your dad’s white it means—” she says, not completing the sentence but hinting that her friend has an unfair advantage. Despite her ability as a dancer, Tracey, whose mother’s ambition is getting “on the disability,” has no chance.

The narrator’s mother, by contrast, is a fanatical self-improver. As all immigrants know, the route to success is through education—both the kind you learn from books and, just as important in Britain, mastering the terrain of class and manners. “She knew, for example, that a car-boot sale—despite its unpromising name—was where you could find a better quality of person, and also their old Penguin paperbacks, sometimes by Orwell.” She is so wary of being dragged back down that she refuses to go with her daughter and husband when they visit her pot-smoking brother Lambert in south London. (In Smith’s novels the Thames might as well be the Styx.) Her reinvention will be as radical as her daughter’s: she divorces her husband, becomes a Labour MP and starts a romance with another woman. Her ambition, though, comes at the cost of a healthy bond with her daughter, who regards radical politics with scepticism and is closer to her quiet father. Their souring relationship is the most convincing Smith has created.

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Willesden in the 1980s was genuinely socially mixed. At Smith’s own comprehensive school, a girl from the Athelstan Estate such as her rubbed shoulders with the offspring of art critics. In White Teeth, Irie, Smith’s surrogate, is invited for dinner at the posh Chalfens’ house. Her attitude is one of amused curiosity. “She’d never been so close to this strange and beautiful thing, the middle class, and experienced the kind of embarrassment that is actually intrigue, fascination. It was both strange and wondrous.” Swing Time has a much less sanguine view of class interaction. In the games the narrator plays with her white middle-class school friend Lily Bingham, “nobody died or was afraid or took revenge or feared being uncovered as a fraud, and there was absolutely no black and no white.” Lily says she is “colour blind”—a phrase that superficially denotes equality, but actually denies the narrator’s difference.

The racial humour of Smith’s earlier work—in which she had no fear of impersonating Asian characters in sometimes crude ways—is subtly reframed in Swing Time’s best scene. Our narrator and Tracey are at Lily Bingham’s house for her 10th birthday. They are rehearsing a dance sequence while Lily films them. Tracey grabs two lacy camisoles from Mrs Bingham’s drawer and the two girls dance in their borrowed clothes. When Lily’s mum finds them, she “exploded… tore us apart, stripped us of our costumes”: even mouthy Tracey is silenced. Tracey has another reason to be ashamed. Before the party she had casually described another school friend as a “Paki.” When the narrator’s mother defends her, saying that “she’s just repeating what she’s heard,” Mrs Bingham replies crisply, “No doubt.” The epithet “Paki” carries its own offensive weight; but here it is being used as a code word that reveals the essentially uncivilised nature, in Mrs Bingham’s mind, of Tracey’s working-class family.

When Swing Time moves into following the narrator’s adult life, it becomes less compelling. I can see why Smith chose the world of celebrity as a dramatic contrast with her narrator’s humble beginnings, but the narrator’s boss Aimee—a Madonna-like singer—is thinly characterised. Her desire to set up an education project in a country resembling the Gambia leads the novel down a blind alley. It is not that Smith doesn’t treat her African characters with respect—it’s that she’s too respectful, failing to get under their skin as she does so brilliantly when on her home turf. The love interest, a Senegalese man called Lamin, barely says anything memorable. (This is a novel more interested in female friendship than romance.) She might also have made more of the sinister Salafi guy who chastises relaxed and syncretic West African Islam, including the novel’s one unabashed pleasure: dancing. Putting an Islamist together with a western-run girls’ school is like bringing a loaded gun on stage: it needs to be fired.

There is one terrific scene when the narrator visits a slavery museum. Smith excels at catching the weird atmosphere of such places: the kitsch slave statue, the desolate café, the “solemn Black-British family” mingling with “a couple of white Dutch women, both already freely weeping.” The narrator’s mother once told her that for people like her, “all paths lead back there.” For the narrator, it is both a particular and a general story—considered in grand Naipaul-like cadences: “Power had preyed on weakness here: all kinds of power—local, racial, tribal, royal, national, global, economic—on all kinds of weakness, stopping at nothing, not even at the smallest girl child. But power does that everywhere. The world is saturated in blood.” The image of that “smallest girl child” leads us naturally back to the two dancing girls in Kilburn and their divergent paths.

In an article for the New York Review of Books published shortly after the European Union referendum, Smith argued that the relaxed multiculturalism of her childhood had diminished. Her daughter, while at the local primary school in Willesden, made friends with the son of a white woman from her old council estate. She would have liked to have set up a playdate, but something stopped her—not least the woman’s hostility, not racial she thought, but class-based. “In this new England it felt, to me at least, impossible. To her, too, I think. The gap between us has become too large.” But we are left wondering: has the world got narrower, or just Smith’s world? She is a Chalfen now.

Swing Time is a pivot point in Smith’s career, where her maturing vision is finally catching up with her verbal virtuosity. It is less crowd-pleasing than White Teeth, and I doubt it will garner as many readers. But it deals with the same issues with greater depth and artistic control. The prose is a deep pleasure, shorn of one-liners and snappy judgment, wonderfully balanced and well-modulated. Watching Smith’s progress from dazzling ingenue to acute self-critic to wiser old hand has been fascinating. This novel certainly has flaws—she has always had a problem with endings—but its author has the humility to realise that she is still a work-in-progress.

Where will Zadie Smith go next? If the rumours are to be believed, she is working on a science-fiction adventure story (set in Kilburn, naturally). It would seem a perfect fit for an author whose life’s work has been creating alternative worlds.

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