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Book review: Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith. Photo/Alamy

Zadie Smith’s razzle-dazzle of linguistic flair gives her new novel great appeal.

The syncopated footsteps of Fred Astaire in the 1936 Hollywood musical Swing Time are a ­leitmotif in Zadie Smith’s eponymous novel. Partly a hymn to the “rhythmic euphoria” of popular dance, Smith’s book is as elastically nimble and entertainingly engaging as a classic routine by Fred and Ginger, dancing you energetically through a repertoire of up-to-the-minute concerns and anxieties. I won’t say it was impossible to put down because it’s a long novel, but I was always eager to pick it up and plunge once more into its twists and turns, the razzle-dazzle of its linguistic flair.

It’s 1982 and two seven-year-old girls meet at a dance class in a north-west London hall. They bond over their shared obsession with tap-dancing – and over the fact that they look similar. Both the never-named narrator and her new best friend Tracey have one Afro-Caribbean parent and one English parent. But whereas the narrator’s Jamaican-born mother is a “minimalist militant feminist” whose autodidactic dedication and social activism lead to her eventually becoming an MP, Tracey’s English mother is in an abusive relationship and compensates by spoiling Tracey with a bedroom full of toys and “diamante everything”.

Tracey is a gifted dancer – her feet are “two humming birds in flight” – whereas the narrator’s feet are “square and flat, they seemed to grind through the positions”. Nevertheless, both study the dance moves of Astaire and Mr Bojangles Robinson, and later of Michael Jackson. As the narrator tells us: “a dancer was a man from nowhere, without parents or siblings, without a nation or people, without obligations of any kind and this was exactly the quality I loved”.

Exploring whether nature or nurture is more crucial to character development, Swing Time moves from being a novel about growing up in a slum-like housing estate to being a study in female consciousness-raising. Almost all the females we encounter are powerful, purposeful protagonists, while almost all of the males play bit parts, straining at their assorted inadequacies and masculinist neuroses.

Yet if Swing Time often feels essayistic, with characters threatening to become self-conscious stereotypes, struggling with “authenticity” after a diet of hand-me-down tropes from TV and the movies, what saves it is the ironic distancing, its constant satiric edge, its laugh-aloud insights and its shrewd depictions of aspirational posturing by both genders.

Tracey becomes a professional dancer, but the narrator graduates from university to wind up as a PA to an Australian globetrotting disco diva who decides to finance and build a school for girls in West Africa.

This jaunt to West Africa, along with its prolonged consequences, becomes an opportunity for Smith to survey the global neo-liberal momentum of the past three decades or so (significantly, up to 2008): the slick hucksterism and duplicitous assertions; taking in Thatcherism and Blairism, the rise of the media to a central controlling role, the general triumph of style over substance, and ultimately the neo-feudal rule of the One-Percenters.

SWING TIME, by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton, $37)

This article was first published in the November 12, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.