Review: Swing Time

Will Tilbrook 28 December 2016

That Zadie Smith's 2000 debut novel White Teeth was primarily written around her finals and secured an advance of a quarter of a million pounds has become something of a stock fact where Smith is discussed. In a heady and optimistic 'Millenium moment' – one that seems very far away right now – she was hailed as the golden daughter of a modern, meritocratic, and multiracial Britain. Her writing was hailed as "post-imperial and post-racial": an epithet which manages to appear even more ridiculous today than it must have then

The symbol of a school building in North London which first appeared in White Teeth seems to represent the shifting contexts of Smith's career. In 2000, describing the school attended by the children protagonists, Smith wrote of a school full of "children with first and last names on a direct collision course" like "Quang O'Rourke" and best friends Sita "white (her mother liked the name)" and Sharon "Pakistani (her mother thought it best – less trouble)". Yet what could be the very same school stands, in her recent essay on Brexit, as a symbol of London's gentrification and division: a fence erected to keep out intruders and other pollution and better Ofsted ratings shrinking catchment areas.

Swing Time, Smith's fifth novel, returns, albeit in strikingly different form to the experimental nature of her last book, NW, to North West London, but it then moves further beyond it than any of Smith's novels, at least since On Beauty, to an unnamed African country. Just as it returns, in part, to familiar locations, the novel seems to return to familiar preoccupations: since White Teeth, which follows the changing fortunes of two North London families, the relationships between those hailing from the same corner of the metropolis have been a central concern. Swing Time, like NW, concerns itself with the changing relationship and diverging lives of two brown girls – the very people for whom the book was written, as Smith recently told a Cambridge audience. Their widely differentiating paths illustrate the powerful effects that seemingly subtle differences in class and race have in modern Britain, whilst their continuing, if strained, connection illustrates that peculiar strength of formative female friendships.

If familiar tropes of similarity and difference remain, Smith’s treatment of some themes is more explicit than ever. Inequality and power are everywhere, in all their different but intertwined manifestations. Take, for example, the white pop star who effectively buys the child of parents from an undisclosed African country whose GDP is less than her net worth. Yet this white, ageing celebrity cannot, ultimately, convince Lamin, a man from the same village, to reciprocate her love. Swing Time is the first of Smith’s novels to be written in the first person, yet, despite having her own voice, her unnamed protagonist’s story is so entirely moulded by others, as she confesses “I never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.” As with virtually all Smith's work the book combines a roaming scope with piercing social commentary.

Swing Time's publicity campaign has taken place amidst the fallout of both Brexit and Trump's election. Speaking in Cambridge last term Smith noted that she is often asked about 'multiculturalism' and its apparent failure. As she notes, "what's being said is that the conditions of your childhood were a kind of experiment, and it turns out it hasn't gone well, so we're going to revoke that."

Yet not only is London's multiculturalism not a failed experiment but London is more multicultural than ever: less than half of Londoners described themselves as “white British” in the 2011 census, a fact that we oughtn’t lose sight of even in our post-23 June state. This means, really, that how we chose to frame our current state could not be more important. In Cambridge, Smith remarked that it would now be the duty of American writers not to 'normalise' the incoming Trump presidency but to hold it to the highest account. It might be said, too, that the the duty of liberal-leaning British writers in a post-Brexit world is not to normalise a narrow 'little England' understanding of our age but, rather, to champion an open and diverse account of our shared past and present.