Reviewed by Lucy Unwin
Great dancers make the most complicated moves look effortless, and great writers have you swinging through their work like a dance.
Zadie Smith skips easily from London, to New York, to West Africa in her latest novel, without missing a beat. She tells the stories of myriad women, through the eyes of just one, with so light a touch you barely even notice. In fact, I’d finished reading before I realised we don’t even know her name.
Dance is the focus of the two girls central to this story: our unnamed narrator and her childhood best friend Tracey meet at a class in the church adjoining their estates. One follows her talent to the stage, while in the other, the lack of dance feels like a constant pressure waiting to burst out.
Our narrator ends up in a different part of the entertainment world. As a personal assistant to a Madonna-like character; she tends to her needs as she travels the world and follows through on her charitable plans to set up a girls’ school in a West African village.
It’s an odd mix of subjects. That skip Zadie does – from childhood besties learning about and testing out loyalty, to the glib demands of a celebrity, to an intriguing and fresh depiction of Muslim life in an African village – sounds weird when you describe it, but it seems so natural when you’re reading.
Perhaps because the central subject doesn’t change. And it’s not dance, it’s simply women.
Mothers, daughters, childless, trapped, free, vindictive, powerful, empowered, weak, naive, loyal, friends, frenemies, employers, politicians and subjects. Every shade of female experience under the sun. And every shade of skin.
Unsurprisingly, given Zadie Smith’s previous work, it’s about women, and also about race. Skin colour matters, if only because it matters to our narrator – the key relationship of her life is based entirely on matching skin tones, and her emotional crises are magnified through the lens of race. Africa, culture, cultural appropriation, history, the point where sex intercepts with race, the point where skin colour means a talented dancer is most likely to show up on stage in Showboat. All these are covered.
It’s not surprising then, given the two central subjects, that this is a subtle and complex work. But the delight of it wasn’t in the heaviness of the subjects Zadie dances over, but the lightness with which it’s done. The frivolous but vivid details of growing up in the 80s – the Thriller video and Back to the Future on VHS – spark a comfortable nostalgia. For me too, the details of both North West London and the music industry are delightfully familiar, as are, for everyone I’m sure, the aims and lives of the charitable celebrity and the emotionally fraught path of school-time friendships.
Strangely, by the end, I felt I knew too what it would be like to stumble around after dark in an African village, the lights failed by the shonky generator, but mobile phone screens casting a blue glow. Basic huts adorned by carefully rendered paintings of the Manchester United logo.
The skill, to me, in Zadie’s misdirecting steps is to make the alien feel as comforting and familiar as the places – physical and emotional – that you already hold dear, and to do so while you’re completely swept up in her dance.
Lucy Unwin blogs about books at those precious stolen moments. You can find her on Twitter @Stolen_Moments and @LucyAnnUnwin
Zadie Smith, Swing Time (Penguin, 2016). 978-0141036601, 464pp., paperback.
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