Amid this year’s pre-holiday blizzard of book releases, British author Zadie Smith’s Swing Time stands out. Eagerly anticipated by her legions of fans, Swing Time is Smith’s first novel in four years, following 2012’s experimental NW. As a young, biracial, female author, Smith is considered a touchstone of her generation, and of the changing face of the Western world. Each of Smith’s five celebrated novels to date has been closely examined through that lens; Swing Time no doubt will be as well.
For those curious to learn what the spirited parsing and animated discussion of Smith’s growing oeuvre is all about, Swing Time offers a good place to start. Unlike the challengingly unconventional NW, with its lack of plot line and jarring changes in structure, Swing Time is a conventional novel featuring the journalistically precise and emotionally true descriptions of people and places for which Smith has been known since the release of her breakthrough debut, White Teeth, 16 years ago at age 24.
As in her earlier novels, Smith features a pair of characters in Swing Time whose relationship serves as the novel’s through line. The book’s unnamed first-person narrator and Tracey meet as children in dance class. They are immediately drawn to one another as the only biracial students in the class. “Our shade of brown was exactly the same,” notes the narrator, “as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both.”
The story moves back and forth in time between the girls’ upbringing in 1980s working-class London, and the narrator’s all-consuming work in young adulthood as the personal assistant to Aimee, a jet-setting, Lady Gaga-like mega-star.
The story finds its legs when the single- monikered pop star determines to “save” a bit of Africa by bestowing her fame and munificence on a small village in an unnamed West African nation. While Aimee blithely flits in and out of the village, it falls to the narrator to bring the star’s self-focused generosity to life. The assistant’s support, on Aimee’s behalf, of a school for girls in the Muslim community leads to discord that eventually reaches into the lives of the assistant and her pop-star boss, with momentous consequences.
Smith’s previous novels have been praised for the “exuberance” of her writing as well as her characters. In Swing Time, Smith’s prose is unequivocally and sparklingly exuberant. But the same cannot be said of her first-person protagonist. The explanation — or, some readers may think, the blame — for that lies with the secondary roles Smith has chosen for her unnamed narrator, both in the narrator’s childhood relationship with Tracey, who becomes an acclaimed dancer, and in the narrator’s job as a personal assistant. Exuberance simply isn’t a characteristic that easily lends itself to those who live and work in the shadows of others.
Despite that dampening character decision by Smith, Swing Time is a keenly observed character study, one that is preoccupied with the choices people make and the roles they decide to play in their own life stories as they mature — not unlike the choices and decisions Smith is making with her novel-length stories as she matures, too.
Scott Graham is the National Outdoor Book Awardwinning author of the National Park Mystery Series for Torrey House Press. The third book in the series, Yellowstone Standoff, was released in June. Visit Graham at scottfranklingraham.com.