Zadie Smith burst onto the literary scene, like a dazzling meteor, with the publication of White Teeth in 2000, written while studying English literature at Cambridge.
That debut novel captures perfectly the complicated relationships between the English and migrants, particularly those from the old colonial countries. Based in her native north-west London, as most of Smith’s novels are, friends Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal are beautifully drawn characters, with depth and warmth. Their story and the writing linger long in the memory.
Swing Time also has its roots in north London. Two young brown girls (mixed race, like Smith herself) meet at a community dance class. Tracey is talented and wild. The never-named narrator is smarter, but not such a great dancer.
The novel tracks their stories and relationship over the next 25 years of adolescence and young adult life.
Tracey has some brief but minor stage success, but descends into council estate poverty, with bitterness and with several children from different fathers.
The narrator finds that a weird globetrotting existence, as PA for a Madonna-like superstar, suits her aimless ambition. With no life of her own, she is glued to Aimee’s whims and changing directions. Based mainly in London and New York, as the writer herself is, the story takes on a different dimension when Aimee decides to fund a girls’ school in West Africa.
The lesser characters in Swing Time are subtly drawn. Aimee is besotted with much younger Lamin, from the African village, and wants him to become part of her inner circle. Beautiful young Hawa, also from the village, chooses a different escape route. Intellectual philanthropic facilitator Fernando from Brazil falls in love with the narrator.
The novel has been well received, but I’m afraid it falls short of the lasting impression I had after turning the final page of White Teeth. Zadie Smith’s novels have won prizes, she is often included in most influential people lists, and she lives a gilded life spanning New York and London. But somehow Swing Time feels a little too much like a hook for her personal concerns and political beliefs, than a well-formed story with wholly believable characters.
Maybe I’m being excessively critical, but you set the bar very high with White Teeth, Ms Smith. Can you please find another meteor?