I’ve long thought that, while Zadie Smith is a superb novelist, she’s an even better essayist. To be sure, the fiction is excellent: “NW’’ in particular is one of the best, most formally adventurous books of the past decade. Yet despite the surface confidence, one catches occasional hints of a deeper self-consciousness — the sense that Smith is writing her novels with critics (including herself) looking over her shoulder.
Never in her essays, though. There, the first-person prose is always assured and agile, grounded in a particular sensibility yet unafraid of large-scale philosophical and political questions. Like the best essayists, Smith gives the sense that everything — the thinking, feeling, and judging — is happening in the moment of writing. In these pieces, Smith dances.
Smith has written her latest novel, “Swing Time,’’ in the first person, and this choice allows for an easy confidence and grace that hasn’t quite been present in her fiction before. Take this sentence, which doubles back on itself several times but never becomes obscure: “I think I was strange to my mother and to my father, a changeling belonging to neither one of them, and although this is of course true of all children, in the end — we are not our parents and they are not us — my father’s children would have come to this knowledge with a certain slowness, over years, were perhaps only learning it fully at this very moment, as the flames ate the pinewood, whereas I was born knowing it, I have always known it, it is a truth stamped all over my face” Everything is casual elegance, ideas dancing with one another.
“Swing Time’’ is a novel about dance through and through. The unnamed narrator, daughter of a black mother and a white father, grows up in Smith country: the council estates of northwest London in the early 1980s. One Saturday at a local dance class, she meets Tracey — also young, also from the estates, also biracial (“Our shade of brown was exactly the same — as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both”) but from a very different kind of household.
As always, Smith writes sharply about race and class. The narrator’s father is a manager for Royal Mail. Her mother, an autodidact, has “a political mind” and an intellectual bent, surrounding herself with canonical books from the black (C.L.R. James) and feminist (Gloria Steinem) traditions, throwing herself into radical causes. Tracey’s father is in and out of prison. Her mother is chavvy: overweight, foul-mouthed, wearing her “thin blond hair pulled back very tightly in . . . ‘a Kilburn facelift.’ ”
The two girls share a love of dance, watching old Hollywood musicals together (the novel’s title comes from a musical of the same name starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers) and marveling at Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video.
From her first dance class, Tracey, confident and impudent, displays great talent: “she had rhythm in individual ligaments, probably in individual cells . . . her body could align itself with any time signature, no matter how intricate.” The narrator lacks such physical genius. Dance isn’t an source of ambition for her as it is for Tracey, who plans to dance her way into a better life. Rather, it’s one of community, connecting her to a tradition of black artistic expression. Where her mother traces her own intellectual lineage to Angela Davis and Langston Hughes, the narrator sees a similar thread connecting her to the tap-dancing Nicholas brothers to Prince to Jackson: “A different kind of history from my mother’s, the kind that is barely written down — that is felt.” For both girls, dance reconfigures their relationship to time — allowing Tracey to master time, to turn the messiness of her life into clear rhythm; allowing the narrator to feel time, to experience the past in her feet and hips and arms.
This childhood friendship is by turns loving (Tracey spins fanciful stories, which the narrator pretends to believe, of her absent father’s life as a backup dancer for Jackson) and hateful: Tracey knows exactly how to punish her quieter, more melancholic friend. In her ability to capture the ferocity and fragility of such relationships, Smith resembles Elena Ferrante.
As the two girls grow older, they drift apart. Tracey has limited success as a professional dancer before falling into the traps of poverty: living on the dole, having multiple children with multiple men, suffering from mental illness. The narrator finds work as a personal assistant to an Australian pop star named Aimee — a Madonna-like figure of constant reinvention and perpetual youth who seems more “a force capable of creating a dilation in time” than an actual person. Aimee gets interested, as celebrities are wont to do, in building schools in an unnamed West African country; the narrator is assigned to help make sure these schools work.
Indeed, the narrator’s time as Aimee’s assistant — flying across continents, seeing the lived experience of poverty in the developing world — occupies almost half of the novel’s pages, with Smith jumping back and forth between the narrator’s youth and her adulthood, swinging time and place this way and that. Of the two the Tracey sections are more emotionally compelling. The Aimee chapters, with their occasional bits on celebrity or Western do-gooderism, are interesting but a little less deeply felt, a little less original.
Those sections where Smith carefully, almost phenomenologically portrays what it’s like to be poor, brown, female, and ambitious are among the most brilliant she has written in her already brilliant career. Like the “music-makers, singers, musicians, [and] dancers” whom her narrator so admires, Smith is able to “turn time into musical phrases, into beats and notes, slowing it down and speeding it up, controlling the time of [her] life, finally, at last, here on a stage . . . ’’
By Zadie Smith
Penguin Press, 453 pp., $27
Anthony Domestico, an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, has a book on poetry and theology forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.