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Monday 1 January 2018

Review: Zadie Smith, Swing Time

I don’t think I’ve read Zadie Smith since White Teeth (2000) which I liked. So when I came to this new novel there was a lot I had read in between, some of which came to mind as I began to read. There is an obvious comparison to be made with Elena Ferrante who also uses the narrative device of two girls growing up together and then going their separate ways. Then there is the cosmopolitanism - the narrative split between London, New York and West Africa – which made me think of Taiye Selasi, Ghana Must Go. This aspect of the novel I found the least satisfactory. Finally, Smith’s teenage girls reminded me of Caitlin Moran's and, like hers, they can be excruciatingly funny.

Like Ferrante, Smith writes powerful scenes which then accumulate into a longer narrative but without any heavy re-enforcement of a preferred story line. I found the London scenes overall the most striking and there was one, which takes place in a small north London pizza joint (pages 321 – 330), which I thought magnificent. It’s beautifully structured but feels like a story which has made itself up as it is being written, it’s completely unexpected, and it is a splendid example of showing rather than telling. It is packed with emotion, the narrator's included. 

The reviewer at The Observer is credited on the cover with the opinion that the novel “Has brilliant things to say about race, class and gender” which is really to cut Zadie Smith off at the ankles for a book in which dancing plays a leading role and reduces her to a clever Sunday school teacher. (In context, the cover quote does not sound half as bad; I checked back to the original review by Taiye Selasi and it’s overall better than the quote the publisher has used).

The novel is a novel and a very accomplished one; there are many turning points where it could shift in several directions, some at least of which will occur to the reader, and it is partly the sense of those other possible directions which gives the reader the chance to feel that this is a work of considerable imaginative power which opens up rather than closes down our own imaginative understandings of how we live and how we might live.

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