Unlike my other literary heroines – Jane Austen and George Eliot – I feel lucky to be Zadie Smith’s contemporary and to have read each of her novels upon release. I’ve grown up with her themes and Swing Time is no exception.
The details of White Teeth, Autograph Man and On Beauty escape me now but I still recall NW vividly. Its exploration of female friendship and the divergent paths our lives take as we grow older – some richer, some poorer, some better, some worse – has occupied my mind no small amount since hitting my 30s (but is easing now).
Having chosen to be a novelist, nonetheless managing two other careers along the way, I have not produced 2.8 children or bought a picket-fenced house, while school friends have already flipped their first home and/or got a holiday home to boot.
In an interview with Lena Dunham, Smith said: “Of course, it’s nice to be celebrated at any age, and those people who manage to write without any audience or a very small one I consider simply heroic. Writing can be hard, but to write and not be read is painful.”
I don’t feel pain that my books have not been read beyond my family and friends, but do occasionally regret not having taken Commerce with my Arts at uni and the fact I can’t seem to find an entrepreneurial bone in my body, or capitalist urge in my brain. And yet the twisted twist in NW showed that all may not be well behind the coveted oak door of that Georgian maisonette.
This theme continues in Swing Time but the lesson is harder to glean. Are we supposed to like the central character? I can’t even remember her name. Tracey, her antagonist, is presented as deeply flawed – a darkness not quite revealed – but at the end, one wonders, whose life is actually better?
Even when I heard, a little later on, from my mother and others in the neighbourhood, that she was having difficulties, more and more frequently in trouble, I couldn’t imagine why that would be, her life was perfect as far as I was concerned, and this is one side-effect of envy, maybe, this failure of imagination. In my mind, her struggles were over. She was a dancer: she’d found her tribe.
I think it would be impossible for anyone to answer the question of ‘better’. It’s such a monochrome comparative; one needs to use more specific adjectives. Whose life is richer? more meaningful? more fun? more varied? Which of the women is braver? Which life would you choose, given the chance?
Another acerbic theme in Swing Time is our consumption of media and the fact our phones have practically swallowed us whole. Smith, who famously uses a flip phone and uses an internet-blocking app on her computer when she writes, nevertheless nails a description of late-night scrolling, an act that tends toward sociopathic stalking in my mind.
In the wake of Brexit and Trump, the London riots of 2011 could almost be forgotten. But Smith’s books never let us forget there’s a class of people struggling every single day to make ends meet and to not die unnoticed, whether their “bubble” consists of one postcode or the whole planet. Read Smith’s essays for more quality food for thought.
A few of my favourite passages from the novel:
Someone had told my mother that clay is only a layer of the earth, and if you dig deep enough you can get past it, and then all you have to do is go to the garden centre and get some compost and pour it into your large illegal hole… We peered down into the hole my father was now digging: under the clay was more clay. My mother came downstairs and peered in, too, and claimed to be ‘very excited’ about the clay. She never again mentioned vegetables, and if anyone else tried to mention them she seamlessly adopted the new party line, which was that the hole had never been about lettuces, the hole had always been a search for clay. Which had now been found. In fact, she had two potter’s wheels upstairs! What a wonderful resource for the children!
He was jabbing his finger into the narrow chest of the Somali delivery boy, Anwar, who had a great luminosity of spirit, a notable capacity for joy – despite nothing in life seeming to provide just cause for it – and whose response now was to clap his hands and grin from ear to ear.
But every image had a cartoon thinness to it, and felt no closer to reality than the mural on the side of the museum that showed a strapping, naked Mandinka family in neck chains being chased out of the bush by an evil Dutchman, as if they’d been trapped like prey by a hunter rather than sold like grain by a chief.
I broke the gaze of a petrified squirrel to greet Tracey, who was returning from the bar with two white wines in her hands and a powerful look of disgust on her face.
‘Seven quid? What fuckery is this?’
‘We could go somewhere else.’
She screwed up her nose: ‘No. That’s what they want. We were born here. Drink slowly.’
And you’re good friends?’
‘I know her very well. I mean, I haven’t seen her in about eight years.’
Kramer frowned: ‘See, in guy world we’d call that an “ex-friend”, or better still: “A stranger”.’
Meanwhile, I’ve been so busy consuming/being consumed by TV series (most recently The Crown and Westworld) that I’ve read far fewer books than is healthy and not bothered to review the ones I have managed to finish.
A few stand outs are also by women: