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11 November 2016

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.

By Alice O'Keeffe

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.

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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.

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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)

This article appears in the 10 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump apocalypse