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Swing Time is a fun novel, but the steps are a little too complex

Zadie Smith's new novel is enjoyable but tries to do too much. Next time, she should slow down, lean back and try out a waltz.

Nobody would call Zadie Smith a minimalist. White Teeth was a 560-page comic epic, perfectly in tune with the sensory overload of 1990s multicultural London. My favourite, On Beauty, was her most tightly focused, but more recently she returned to dazzling readers in NW, an at times bewildering kaleidoscope of characters and forms.

Her books make me think of those living rooms with swirly wallpaper, a flowery sofa and ornaments on every surface (please note: I like those rooms). They are full of life, unafraid of mess, teetering on the edge of being too much. Smith has acknowledged something similar – she once described White Teeth as “the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired, tap-dancing ten-year-old”. That quotation came back to me as I read Swing Time, partly because it features tap-dancing children, but also because, although its author is now a formidable and mature artist, that girl hasn’t entirely gone away.

At the centre of this novel is the friendship between our narrator and Tracey, two girls from north London who dream of ­becoming dancers. They have many things in common: problematic noses, council-flat homes, nut-brown skin, an obsession with Fred and Ginger, a taste for Angel Delight. A casual observer might give them roughly equal life chances. Yet the differences are evident from the beginning and, over time, they start to count. Tracey has frilly skirts and bows in her hair. Her mum, who is “white, obese, afflicted with acne” and who aspires only to “get on the disability”, buys her daughter every toy under the sun and feeds her on Findus Crispy Pancakes. Her wrong ’un father, who Tracey wishfully insists is a backing dancer for Michael Jackson, casts a sinister shadow over her life.

Our narrator, on the other hand, has a mother who looks like Nefertiti, wears espadrilles and takes Open University courses in sociology and politics (though no one can work out why). On the estate, she is uniquely confident in standing up to authority, berating the teachers on parents’ evening, digging illegal vegetable beds in the council-owned lawn and getting her husband to heave a pottery wheel up the stairs so the girls have something to do other than watch cartoons and soap operas. This father will seem familiar to readers of Smith’s previous books: a humble and reliable white man, who is both in awe of his more ambitious, exotic wife and completely baffled by her.

True to form, Smith evokes the significance of these relatively small social differences wonderfully well; the scene with the pottery wheel, in particular, is hilarious (as the mother harps on about Augusta Savage, Tracey fashions her rustic “vase” into a long, brown penis). These enjoyable opening chapters set the scene for an exploration – reminiscent of Elena Ferrante, though feistier and funnier – of the relationship between the two girls as they grow up and venture out into the world.

Then something odd happens. Rather than keeping her focus on their friendship, Smith gets distracted by a new storyline. Our now grown-up narrator gets a job working for a major-league pop star, Aimee, who wants to open a school in Africa. In the second half of the book, set largely in Africa, Tracey sinks almost completely into the shadows, reappearing only to help tie up certain elements of the plot.

Smith is skilled at developing characters and relationships across a range of cultures, and the Africa sections here are no exception. It’s understandable that after writing three novels set in north London, she might feel sick of the place and want to get out. On another level, she has set out to juxtapose the narrator’s guilt-riddled relationship with Tracey, whom she has left behind, with larger structural questions about the relationship between the world’s poorest and the super-rich.

It’s too much of a stretch, even for Smith. Those questions about guilt, inequality and obligation would have arisen more naturally and worked more effectively had she kept faith with her original characters. None of this is helped by the distraction of Aimee, who is almost explicitly Madonna and yet not Madonna (she is Australian). Try as I might, I couldn’t separate her from Madonna in my mind, or feel that she was a character in her own right.

I admire Zadie Smith’s ambition, her willingness to try new things and let it all hang out. So I enjoyed Swing Time, in the way I’d enjoy a crazy tap dance. But next time she should slow down, lean back and try out a waltz.

Zadie Smith appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival in conversation with the NS culture editor, Tom Gatti, on 22 November

Swing Time by Zadie Smith is published by Hamish Hamilton (453pp, £18.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump apocalypse

Photo: Channel 4
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Who will win Great British Bake Off 2017 based on the contestants’ Twitters

An extremely serious and damning investigation. 

It was morning but the sky was as dark as the night – and the night was as dark as a quite dark rat. He walked in. A real smooth gent with legs for seconds. His pins were draped in the finest boot-cut jeans money could buy, and bad news was written all over his face. “I’m Paul,” he said. “I know”. My hooch ran dry that night – but the conversation never did. By nightfall, it was clear as a see-through rat.   

Some might say that going amateur detective to figure out which contestants win and lose in this year’s Great British Bake Off is spoiling the fun faster than a Baked Alaska left out of the freezer. To those people I’d say: yes. The following article is not fun. It is a serious and intense week-by-week breakdown of who will leave GBBO in 2017. How? Using the contestants’ Twitter and Instagram accounts, of course.

The clues are simple but manifold, like a rat with cousins. They include:

  • The date a contestant signed up for social media (was it during, or after, the competition?)
  • Whether a contestant follows any of the others (indicating they had a chance to bond)
  • A contestant’s personal blog and headshots (has the contestant already snaffled a PR?)
  • Pictures of the contestant's baking.
  • Whether a baker refers to themselves as a “baker” or “contestant” (I still haven’t figured this one out but FOR GOD’S SAKE WATSON, THERE’S SOMETHING IN IT)

Using these and other damning, damning, damning clues, I have broken down the contestants into early leavers, mid-season departures, and finalists. I apologise for what I have done.

Early leavers

Kate

Kate appears not to have a Twitter – or at least not one that the other contestants fancy following. This means she likely doesn’t have a book deal on the way, as she’d need to start building her social media presence now. Plus, look at how she’s holding that fork. That’s not how you hold a fork, Kate.

Estimated departure: Week 1

Julia

This year’s Bake Off began filming on 30 April and each series has ten episodes, meaning filming ran until at least 9 July. Julia first tweeted on 8 May – a Monday, presumably after a Sunday of filming. Her Instagram shows she baked throughout June and then – aha! – went on holiday. What does this mean? What does anything mean?

Estimated departure: Week 2

James

James has a swish blog that could indicate a PR pal (and a marketing agency recently followed him on Twitter). That said, after an April and May hiatus, James began tweeting regularly in June – DID HE PERHAPS HAVE A SUDDEN INFLUX OF FREE TIME? No one can say. Except me. I can and I am.

Estimated departure: Week 3

Tom

Token-hottie Tom is a real trickster, as a social media-savvy youngster. That said, he tweeted about being distracted at work today, indicating he is still in his old job as opposed to working on his latest range of wooden spoons. His Instagram is suspiciously private and his Twitter sparked into activity in June. What secrets lurk behind that mysteriously hot face? What is he trying to tell me, and only me, at this time?

Estimated departure: Week 4

Peter

Peter’s blog is EXCEPTIONALLY swish, but he does work in IT, meaning this isn’t a huge clue about any potential managers. Although Peter’s bakes look as beautiful as the moon itself, he joined Twitter in May and started blogging then too, suggesting he had a wee bit of spare time on his hands. What’s more, his blog says he likes to incorporate coconut as an ingredient in “everything” he bakes, and there is absolutely no bread-baking way Paul Hollywood will stand for that.

Estimated departure: Week 5

Mid-season departures

Stacey

Stacey’s buns ain’t got it going on. The mum of three only started tweeting today – and this was simply to retweet GBBO’s official announcements. That said, Stacey appears to have cooked a courgette cake on 9 June, indicating she stays in the competition until at least free-from week (or she’s just a massive sadist).

Estimated departure: Week 6

Chris

Chris is a tricky one, as he’s already verified on Twitter and was already solidly social media famous before GBBO. The one stinker of a clue he did leave, however, was tweeting about baking a cake without sugar on 5 June. As he was in London on 18 June (a Sunday, and therefore a GBBO filming day) and between the free-from week and this date he tweeted about bread and biscuits (which are traditionally filmed before free-from week in Bake Off history) I suspect he left just before, or slap bang on, Week 7. ARE YOU PROUD NOW, MOTHER?

Estimated departure: Week 7

Flo

Flo’s personal motto is “Flo leaves no clues”, or at least I assume it is because truly, the lady doesn’t. She’s the oldest Bake Off contestant ever, meaning we can forgive her for not logging onto the WWWs. I am certain she’ll join Twitter once she realises how many people love her, a bit like Val of seasons past. See you soon, Flo. See you soon.

Estimated departure: Week 8

Liam

Liam either left in Week 1 or Week 9 – with 0 percent chance it was any of the weeks in between. The boy is an enigma – a cupcake conundrum, a macaron mystery. His bagel-eyed Twitter profile picture could realistically either be a professional shot OR taken by an A-Level mate with his dad’s camera. He tweeted calling his other contestants “family”, but he also only follows ONE of them on the site. Oh, oh, oh, mysterious boy, I want to get close to you. Move your baking next to mine.

Estimated departure: Week 9

Finalists

Steven

Twitter bios are laden with hidden meanings and Steven Carter-Bailey’s doesn’t disappoint. His bio tells people to tune in “every” (every!) Tuesday and he has started his own hashtag, #StevenGBBO. As he only started tweeting 4 August (indicating he was a busy lil baker before this point) AND his cakes look exceptionally lovely, this boy stinks of finalist.  

(That said, he has never tweeted about bread, meaning he potentially got chucked out on week three, Paul Hollywood’s reckoning.)

Sophie

Sophie’s Twitter trail is the most revealing of the lot, as the bike-loving baker recently followed a talent agency on the site. This agency represents one of last year’s GBBO bakers who left just before the finale. It’s clear Sophie’s rising faster than some saffron-infused sourdough left overnight in Mary’s proving drawer. Either that or she's bolder than Candice's lipstick. 

Chuen-Yan

Since joining Twitter in April 2017, Yan has been remarkably silent. Does this indicate an early departure? Yes, probably. Despite this, I’m going to put her as a finalist. She looks really nice. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.