Two girls meet in a children’s dance class and forge a lifelong connection, in Smith’s latest novel.
by Zadie Smith
(Penguin Press; $27). 453 pages.
Intense female bonds are forged for different reasons, at different times of life. Some can endure, long after the intimacy has waned.
For the unnamed narrator of leading British author Zadie Smith’s engrossing new novel, “Swing Time,” her attraction to a schoolmate named Tracey is complicated.
At age 9, both live in public housing, both are mixed race with one black parent, one white. And both are eager, starry-eyed participants in a children’s dance class.
From these shared circumstances and early affinities Smith spins a far-reaching, serio-comic rumination on race, privilege and profound relationships between mothers and daughters, friends and rivals, idols and followers.
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“Swing Time” unfolds in two time zones (that eventually merge) and an international sphere of stark contrasts and conflicting agendas, haves and have-nots.
The narrator, like Smith, was born in 1972 and reared in Willesden, a working-class section of London. With Tracey, she practices tap routines and delights in classic Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies (hence the book’s title) and the rare Hollywood success in the 1930s and ’40s of a light-skinned black tap hoofer, Jeni LeGon.
But in other ways, the girls are opposites. The narrator is awkward, socially insecure, with a “ponderous and melancholy” face. But she has a warm, caring father and a devoted, if far more demanding mother — an intellectually ambitious, feminist Caribbean immigrant who sternly counsels her resistant daughter on radical politics and self-improvement.
The more confident, pretty but guarded Tracey is raised by a blowsy, cash-strapped white mother. After serving prison time, her ne’er do well black father drops back into her life and exploits her neediness.
There are periods of estrangement and reunion as the two friends come of age and their paths diverge: one to college and sophistication; the other to show business.
In alternating, time-shuffled chapters, the narrator in her 20s becomes a globe-trotting personal assistant to Aimee, a white Australian superstar. Drawn in broad and wickedly satirical fashion, this mega-rich, seemingly ageless pop idol has a yen to “heal” the world, but a short attention span. She sends her factotums off to West Africa periodically to look in on a new school she’s funded in an impoverished village.
Smith trenchantly explores the religious and political stresses on this close-knit community, and the culture clash when First World “do-gooders” bungle in and make things worse. (Aimee’s fast-track adoption of a baby, with cash changing hands, brings to mind a similar scandal involving Madonna.)
But genuine East-West friendships also develop, and global stereotypes are punctured.
“Swing Time” is the work of a writer whose fancy verbal footwork allows her to change partners often. There is a big supporting cast. Most vivid: the narrator’s driven mother, who becomes an activist politician; a poor but educated young African man trying to better himself; and the charismatic but narcissistic Aimee and her entourage.
However, Tracey may be the most fascinating persona, and least predictable. She keeps popping up in different guises, and mindsets — eager to reconnect, coolly estranged, resentful and vicious, as a promising showgirl and a cynical drudge.
And despite her tendency to stand apart and acidly judge others, the narrator changes too. Gradually, painfully she develops enough depth and compassion to pry open her own clamped heart, and let those she loved most back in.