“I couldn’t rid myself of this feeling of discomfort and imbalance” – Swing Time by Zadie Smith

zsst1Smith’s fifth novel concerns two girls who grow up on a similar patch of London housing estate but whose lives go in different directions. Our narrator is precocious, in some ways (and we wonder, given that Smith herself dallied with dance, considered a future in London theatre, whether the lack of a name is telling), with a highly political mother whose own marriage suffers as a result of her attempts to better herself; and then we have Tracey, a better dancer but a girl whose family isn’t as smart and whose choices are perhaps more limited and whose anger burns incandescently.

We first meet our narrator “on the first day of her humiliation”, approximately now, we presume, as she flees America, returns home to London, doused in scandal. We don’t know the how, when and why but we know that the phone is ringing off the hook, the temporary rental she has been “set up with” in St John’s Wood under siege. Online she is being called WHORE. Somebody writes Now everyone knows who you really are. It is then 1982. We meet Tracey. The two girls are drawn silently towards one another because “our shade of brown was exactly the same”. We also see their mothers and the differences are stark: our narrator’s mother is a feminist who looks like Nefertiti; Tracey’s mother “was white, obese, afflicted with acne”. Still, the two girls become friends. They take a dance class together. Tracey can really dance, our narrator is more awkward but likes to sing and has a nice voice. Part one of the book is all about this world, parents, relatives, admired dancers, politics, reading. If all of this sounds a mite Tracy Beaker, that’s because it is. Smith is erudite as all hell and knows a lot about a lot, but there are still times when the writing feels crude. Here is our narrator, walking home after learning that Tracey’s dad is a dancer for Michael Jackson:

“I walked towards my own flat trying to think of some equivalent revelation I could offer to Tracey the next time I saw her, a terrible illness or a new baby, but there was nothing, nothing, nothing!”

“Strange now,” she writes, “to think that we were all only nine years old at the time,” and you think, are the purple patches Smith recreating her nine year old self? But then Swing Time is no Paddy Clarke…, her narrator is retrospective, adult, looking back, and so you can’t help but think: if it looks like bad writing, if it smells like bad writing, then quite simply it’s bad writing. This is just one example. Here’s another. Later in the book, when our narrator flirts with being a Goth, the section climaxes with: “I was over the threshold: I gave up the gothic life.” You can’t help but roll your eyes.

We then bolt forward and meet Aimee, a pop star our narrator, and Tracey for that matter, love from being children. Our narrator gets a job working for her and from this point on Swing Time veers between the childhood and the life our narrator leads in her twenties, in London, New York and Africa. Aimee is a Madonna manqué, a citizen of the world, whose music, dance and performance is only one part of her life as she looks to do good, funnelling some of her money into the construction of a school for girls in a small African community. We see how our narrator is working for a small production company (and later we learn that she was working previously with Tracey, that Tracey got her a theatre job, that she walked away from it towards what she felt was her true calling) when she meets Aimee, who she impresses (although it isn’t altogether clear why) and who sweeps her up into a world of private jets and anonymous celebrity (but Smith is no Bret Easton-Ellis and these parts of the book suffer from comparison with a writer like Ellis who can write like Truman Capote about that world when he chooses to).

As with many modern novels and modern novelists, linearity is gauche and so we skip back and forth throughout the life – and what this does is remove the punch from almost every revelation because everything is forecast and nothing lands as a surprise (which isn’t to say that this can’t be done well – Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings shows that you can give your reader awareness of things coming down the line without quite robbing the whole of impact – and just that it isn’t done well here). The trick to it is to show events from multiple perspectives, your different selves refracting as different lessons are learned, one thing becoming another. But Swing Time rarely rises above exposition and forecasting. “I couldn’t rid myself of this feeling of discomfort and imbalance,” the narrator thinks about a quarter of the way through the book and the reader – or at least this reader – nods and thinks yeah, me too. Later, in trying to explain what went on between her and Tracy to Aimee, Aimee replies, “The timeline is confusing.” Damn straight you think.

Swing Time is a book that is wrestling with itself, it’s awash with questions, but answers prove evasive:

“Did all friendships – all relations – involve this discreet and mysterious exchange of qualities, this exchange of power? Did it extend to peoples and nations or was it a thing that happened only between individuals? What did my father give my mother – and vice versa? What did Mr Booth and I give each other? What did I give Tracey? What did Tracey give me?”

And then amidst it all, almost by accident, there are lines that are profoundly moving and exact in their neatness and recall the effect of White Teeth and On Beauty and NW. For instance, Fern, one of Aimee’s employees, falls in love with our narrator and it doesn’t quite work out. He says,

“The truth is I am very sad. I wanted something – I wanted you – and I didn’t get at all what I wanted or hoped and now I am sad. I will get over it, I suppose, but for now I am sad. Is it ok for me to be sad? Yes?”

All told, it feels like Smith’s weakest book. The swiftest glance at Smith’s Wiki page points out the ways in which she resembles our nameless narrator (fondness for dance, fondness for singing, similar parentage etc) and you can’t help but wonder, is she too close to this to see that it doesn’t quite hold up as a work of fiction? There is no real resolution to the central friendship (and you can’t help but sometimes feel that either you are missing things that must be vitally important – the scene in which Tracey reveals a secret belonging to our narrator’s father had me thinking, so what? – or that the intended bombshells just lack oomph), and the climactic death feels arbitrary (in the sense that you are left wondering has this all been about a mother and a daughter rather than two friends?). Possibly you would argue why can’t it be both? And I would say it can be whatever it wants provided it’s done well, and it is isn’t done well.

Any Cop? A disappointment.




One comment

  1. I had mixed feelings about this novel as well. The first section was strong and the friendship between the girls was compelling. But the rest felt bloated and oddly, by the time I got to the end, I’d completely forgotten about the first scene!

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