“Swing Time,” the first novel from Zadie Smith since 2012’s “NW,” is an admirable if not page-turning story about identity, fame, dance and culture as we know it in the globalized 21st century.
Bookended by a scandal that disrupts the unnamed narrator’s personal and professional life, the novel is written in the first person and braids two narrative strands to recount the narrator’s life from childhood to her early 30s.
She grows up in northwest London, the daughter of a white father and an aspiring politician, Jamaican-born mother. Early on, she finds herself pulled into orbit with Tracey, the other mixed race girl in her dance class. As they grow up, Tracey proves to be a gifted dancer, so ambitious and outspoken that the narrator feels herself always in Tracey’s shadow, despite Tracey’s more tumultuous home life.
Gradually, the girls grow apart, and the narrator lands a job as the personal assistant to Aimee, a world-famous pop singer. Aimee’s pet project, a school for girls in The Gambia, West Africa, occupies the second major thread in the narrative.
It’s when the narrator arrives in Africa that the prose, and the narrator herself, pick up steam.
The brightly drawn characters — Hawa, the bubbly local girl that the narrator stays with on visits to the village, the serious, pensive schoolteacher Lamin, and Fernando, the Brazilian project manager — feel more vivid than the characters who exert more control over the narrator’s life, like Aimee and her mother. In the village, away from the people she’s always standing beside or comparing herself to, the narrator seems freer and happier.
Smith’s early novels, 2000’s “White Teeth” and 2005’s “On Beauty,” were bright, colorful novels full of eccentric characters and Dickensian plot twists. “Swing Time” continues her recent trend toward more restrained, slice-of-life storytelling.
But though the writing here is sophisticated and competent, it lacks a bit of the joy of those earlier books. Part of this may come from the choice to have the narrator look back at her life from the distance of time. But it’s also the case that “Swing Time” insists on taking itself completely seriously. Like the narrator’s mother, it has no time for humor and frivolity.
Between its covers, “Swing Time” explores or engages with many relevant and timely topics: the identities of whiteness and blackness, how British and American and Australian identities can be subsumed under the idea of celebrity, money and people’s various relationships to it, the proper role of a woman in society in regards to career and children, the black body and its expression in Western culture, etc.
Smith is savvy to bring up all these ideas without making the book feel like an essay or a lesson. The narrator ponders these questions as she navigates the world, and the book doesn’t force the reader to draw any conclusions, only invites them to consider.
For all that intellectual weight — or maybe because of it — the novel falls short on plot. The incident that drives a wedge between the narrator and Tracey, as well as the scandal that ends her relationship with Aimee, feel somehow grafted on, almost like afterthoughts to the novel’s more naturalistic tendencies.
“Swing Time” is an engaging book, and worth reading for its critical eye on wealthy, Western assumptions about the world. But unlike the Fred Astaire musicals the narrator loves so much, the novel isn’t quite fun, and it is poorer for that.
“Swing Time” by Zadie Smith (453 pages, Penguin, $27)