Thursday, December 1, 2016

"Swing Time," by Zadie Smith

I still remember the exhilaration of reading British author Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth” when it came out in 2000. What an original and arresting voice! That story of multiracial and multicultural families in London was bursting with life, and Smith, a very young author (in her early twenties when she wrote this novel, and 25 when it was published), was a most welcome fresh new voice. The novel made her instantly famous, winning much praise from critics and readers worldwide. Since then I have read two of her next three novels (“On Beauty” and “NW”) and enjoyed both of them, although “NW” was a little harder to get into, as Smith was experimenting with a new style. (See my post of 10/2/12 on “NW.”) (I tried to read her second novel, “The Autograph Man,” as well, but found it dry, as did many critics, and it seems to be generally regarded as her least successful novel.) Smith has also written essays, given talks, been a writer-in-residence and a professor of writing, and in general is a literary star. I have just read her most recent novel, her fifth, “Swing Time” (Penguin, 2016), and although the reviews have been mixed (mostly positive but sometimes a bit guarded, and in a couple of venues negative), and although I hesitated about reading it, I am very glad I did. This novel, like some of the others, features two friends who grow up together but go in different directions. The friends are the unnamed narrator and her friend Tracey. Both live in a poorer and mostly black area of London; both are biracial; both want to be dancers. Tracey is the more talented dancer, and has some limited success at it, but despite her pride and defiant attitude, struggles with life. The narrator has more education and more experience in the larger world; her job for most of the time covered by the book is as an assistant to a famous one-named singer, Aimee, seemingly based on someone like Madonna. Soon the narrator’s life is completely subsumed to Aimee’s needs, and she jets all over the world with her. A big portion of the book takes place in West Africa, where Aimee has decided to fund and set up a school for girls. This section contains much not-very-veiled criticism of western stars and other philanthropists dropping in to Africa to do seemingly good projects, but often without understanding the contexts and possible consequences of such projects. Readers cannot avoid thinking of such stars as Oprah and Angelina Jolie. Aimee is well meaning but oblivious to nuances and impervious to criticism. There are also subplots to the Africa part of the novel that bring up such issues as romantic and sexual relationships heavily influenced by racial, national, and power imbalances; race; gender; immigration and emigration; poverty; religion (the increasing influence of conservative Islam); and more. All of these issues crowd the pages of the book, and are important and thought-provoking, but (mostly) do not tip over into the didactic or polemic. The characters are compelling, especially the two main characters, along with the narrator’s scholarly and politically active mother, Tracey’s more limited and completely Tracey-focused mother, the two men with whom the narrator becomes involved in Africa, and many more minor but vivid characters. This novel reminds me of the strengths of Smith’s first, “White Teeth,” although it is more mature and less exuberant. Yet Smith’s novels, although she focuses on some common themes throughout her writing, always have new stories, new characters, and new twists. And she is still only 41 years old, so we can look forward to, I hope, many more novels by this gifted writer.
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