Swing Time by Zadie Smith
Anyone who’s read a steady diet of literary fiction and award winners will have heard the name Zadie Smith. She shot to fame in her early twenties with White Teeth, which is surely one of the most impactful books of the 21st century written. Ever. Her follow-up, The Autograph Man, was interesting but unmemorable (I remember liking it, but not enough to keep it on the shelves, and I can only tell you that it involves male friendship, a friend’s dad, and boxing? I think?). I have not yet read On Beauty (though I’ve finally read Howards End, upon which it is based) or NW, though both are on my shelf and waiting impatiently for me. I put in my hold for Swing Time the minute I heard it was being published, and I was rewarded by my library. I just finished it today, and while I still have a lot to chew on, there are a few things I’m ready to review right now.
While most of Smith’s novels are deeply intimate and personal, this one is much broader in focus and scope. Our unnamed narrator is a woman whose life has occurred in three phases: her childhood and adolescence, as influenced by her best friend Tracey; her college years, in which she and her mother break and come back together in various ways; and her young adult professional life, in which she is a personal assistant to a world-famous pop star, Aimee, and helping rehabilitate a West African village (the country isn’t overtly stated, but Wikipedia informs me it’s Gambia) as one of Aimee’s pet projects. The narrative weaves in and out of these three phases in a messy but cohesive timeline.
As I said in my Goodreads review, I think this book marks a potential departure for Smith, but that’s not a bad thing in my view. She played with ideas of globalism and fluid national identity in White Teeth, and you very much see echoes of that in Swing Time. Her exploration of female relationships also intently illuminates the tensions at play within the guise of friendship. There are a lot of threads that don’t always tie neatly together. I’m looking forward to revisiting this book soon.