Zadie Smith – Swing Time [Book Review]

I like how deliberately vague the back-cover blurb is for Swing Time. It’s somehow fitting for a novel in which we never learn the name of its first-person narrator. Fitting too for a novel that, while very much having a strong central voice, also revolves abound two highly dominating personalities that come to characterise the idea of female friendship and its various trajectories for said narrator. Maybe it’s a blessing the blurb is so minimal in its details – because to spoil the vast scope this exceptional novel takes in would be to spoil so much of its power.

At its heart, the book is the story of two childhood friends whose stories revolve around a mutual love of dance. One – Tracey – is the eternal ‘it’ girl, talented and popular, yet doomed – in the long run – to a crippling life of poverty, single motherhood and mental health problems. The other – our nameless narrator – has the smarts, transitioning from university to a job at Camden’s MTV studios and from there, working as personal assistant to the pop superstar Aimee (an amusing amalgam of Kylie Minogue, Madonna and Angelina Jolie). The novel – told out of chronological order – pulls us from a detailed description of London childhood to a globetrotting life of glamour and power in the entertainment industry in a flash, carrying us along for the ride at a pace that is remarkable in its intensity. Suffice to say, I polished the book off in a couple of days – so tightly does Swing Time hold you in the midst of its breathless rhythms – you increasingly hoping for the narrator’s happiness, whilst – as the years pass – her life seems increasingly hollow.

As someone who both grew up in London and worked in the music industry, Swing Time held an immense degree of nostalgic relate-ability to me. Tales of rough-and-tumble childhoods in the borderland of London suburbia, brightened by fast-food and cheap movies. By telling the story of a child’s eye view of the world through the worldly-wise view of adulthood, the novel’s early passages drip with a nostalgia that encapsulate a Britain already fading from view – the last days of a more ‘analogue’ world, a final age of innocence before its eventual eclipse in the neverending flurry of emails and social networks.

With that in mind, as the book moves into its latter half and spends more time in its African setting, it does perhaps lose some of the youthful, electric charm of its early passages, albeit never a drop of readability. A great wash of pathos and melancholia begins to sweep over the novel, and by the time the ending roles round – with a profound sense of definitive ending – it is almost heartbreaking in its intensity. Smith captures the truths of life, both humorous and horrific in all their authentic clarity – social ills yes, but also the wonder of life’s small joys.

In many ways, with its strong female voice, zippy pacing and blend of ruminations on places and races, Swing Time reminds me a lot of Min Jin Lee’s recent Pachinko – although Smith tells her story with infinitely more skill and deftness as a writer. Swing Time is every bit a literary work, dealing with ‘big’ themes on every single one of its 400+ pages, and yet it is also every bit the consumate page-turner. A populist novel, telling a story of populist culture and media. It caters to all crowds, all audiences – subtly taking their hand and pulling them through a window in which difficult truths are presented with a plain, obvious ease that is heartening in its honesty.

In so many ways, a quintessentially British novel – and one I’ll be recommending for a long time to come.

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