The most recent novel from Zadie Smith, Swing Time, is about two women from a London working-class neighborhood who grew up together and shared a love of dance. However, the book is not as jaunty as its title suggests. The story starts during the biracial girls’ childhood, then alternates between the present and their teenage and young adult years, where we see the narrator and Tracey grow apart.
After graduating high school, the narrator becomes the PA of an Australian singing star and becomes consumed by the jetsetting lifestyle, while Tracey settles into family life back in their neighborhood after a lowkey dance career. A major part of the plot centers on the singer deciding to fund a school for girls in an African country (I think it’s the Gambia) which requires the narrator to spend a lot of time in the village where she bonds with locals and tries to understand the culture. Things don’t progress too well as the school creates complications, which is true for international development, among the locals. There is a brief romantic relationship with the narrator and a local teacher which fades away in a surprisingly callous manner.
The name of the book derives from the two girls’ enthusiasm for dance, which they shared in dance class and which saw them idolizing stars like Michael Jackson and even oldtime celebrities like Fred Rogers and Ginger Astaire. Dance represents the one common area for the two girls, whose families and other interests differ significantly. The relationship veers from friendship to frenemies and there are some terrible incidents alluded to regarding one of the girls.
Zadie Smith, a biracial British writer, is a huge literary star, but somehow I’ve never really liked her books that much. Swing Time was a bit boring in the beginning, then improved in the middle, but after finishing it, I thought it was just decent. With Smith’s previous books, especially NW, I found the plots to be kind of complex and the writing all over the place (NW was divided into sections with distinctly different writing styles). I think the issue with Swing Time was I never really cared too much for the main protagonists.
Where I find Smith is good at is describing the bits of disappointment, tension and turmoil that fill her characters’ everyday lives, which reflects the struggles of real life working-class Londoners. Tracey’s broken dance dream signifies the difficulty of escaping the working-class neighborhood while the narrator’s somewhat aimless life, despite taking her all over the world, suggests the hollowness of taking the practical way over passionate pursuit.
A woman in apparent distress desperately knocks on the doors of homes in a northwestern London neighborhood. Leah Cooper opens the door, then thinks nothing of helping the wretched woman by letting her in, hearing her out, and then giving her 30 pounds so she can take a cab to the hospital to see her sick mother. Afterwards, it turns out the woman is a liar and Leah has been scammed. And with this dramatic and bewildering episode, NW begins, taking us into the lives of several northwest Londoners.
Leah is an NGO staffer with an outspoken Irish mother and a African-French husband; her best friend Natalie, formerly Keisha, is an ambitious lawyer; and then Felix is a former addict who has been through some tough times but is trying to put that behind him. Connecting them all is their origin from the same working-class NW London neighborhood in a rough part of London, where public housing estates of blocks have walkways and “lifts that were to be avoided almost as soon as they were built.” Not surprisingly, they have all tried to escape their working-class roots with Natalie/Keisha being the most successful at first glance. Married to a charming but vain Trinidadian-Italian banker with two children with a nice house and a successful career, she has it all or at least it seems so.
NW is divided into several sections, each written in a different style and focusing on a different character. It is confusing and I wasn’t too comfortable with the obvious inconsistencies and disjointed effect when you go from one part to another. One entire section consists of 185 (not a typo) numbered segments, each one a bit of Natalie/Keisha’s past and which lead up to a surprising finale. Meanwhile, the most interesting section has a tragic conclusion that is linked to another section in something that, to me, is not very clear.
The book’s complexity and inconsistent tone mirrors real life, while providing a stirring reminder that even supposedly ordinary lives are interesting if one dives into the details and background. Things do not always work out as you would hope, the past is not always easily put behind oneself, and sometimes life is unfair. These aren’t exactly mysteries but NW puts a human face on them. Race, class and where one grows up all matter, and Smith portrays these in an intimate and pained manner through the characters’ struggles and clashes. But, I don’t think I can agree with the underlying notion that people cannot escape their past regardless of how hard they try. If that is indeed true, then society is even more bleak than what we . At the same time, the book is entirely set in London so some of the circumstances are inevitably unique to London and English society and not applicable to everywhere.
It may not be to everyone’s liking but NW is certainly a memorable novel.