The TOAST Book Club is published on the last Friday of every month. The reviews are written by Betsy Tobin, author of five novels and joint founder of [email protected] – an independent bookshop just up the road from our head office, situated in leafy Highbury. Though the book club exists in a purely digital sphere we hope that you will add your own opinions and thoughts below.* Our fifth book is Swing Time by Zadie Smith.
Zadie Smith’s latest novel does exactly as its name suggests: flings us from present to past, from east to west, from rich to poor, from London to New York and West Africa, from the isolated remnants of history to the shared reality of globalism – this is Smith’s Swing Time – and her rhythm is a compelling one.
At its heart Swing Time is the tale of two mixed race girls growing up on North London council estates in the Eighties. Both are obsessed with dance: Tracy is preternaturally talented but doomed by birth and bad circumstance; the unnamed narrator is blessed with intelligence and stability but burdened by self-doubt and her inability to experience herself as anything other than a ‘shadow’ of those around her.
But if Smith’s protagonist is frustratingly passive, the book’s other women are not. Indeed, strong women drive this story. As the narrative darts around in time, the protagonist swings between the three dominant women in her life: her earnest, overly ambitious mother, determined to claw her way out of poverty and make a name for herself as a left-wing activist; her childhood friend Tracy, who in spite of her talent fails to escape her fate as a single mum on the same Willesden estate she grew up in; and her employer Aimee, a global superstar who hires her as a fixer in a job that demands she shed any vestige of a private life.
With her lucid eye and pitch-perfect ear, Smith does for 80’s Willesden what Ferrante does for 1960’s village life in Naples. Later the action sallies across space and time between London, New York and the Gambia, occasionally making for a fractured reading experience, though Smith paints each location vividly and manages to keep the beat. In many ways this is the story of everywoman, or in the protagonist’s own words, the ‘girl who lives everywhere and at all times in history.’ And though race features prominently, it is gender that rules the day; more specifically, the ‘essential indestructability’ of women.
The book grapples with themes Smith has visited before: how to make sense of a shrinking but fragmented world, and of time and culture measured out in vastly differing beats that we are all over-exposed to. She ranges freely across her passions: dance, old musicals, and the history of slavery all play star turns, and her enthusiasm is largely, if not always, infectious. And while the novel can occasionally feel disorienting, it is never less than eminently readable. Swing Time is at at once both a terrific story and a veritable lucky dip of ideas: plunge into the text at any point and very quickly you will grasp a notion worth ruminating over.
Smith has stated publicly that this is her last London novel: this is a shame, as the London scenes in Swing Time breathe in a way that the book’s other locations don’t always manage. (Some three hundred pages in there is a spectacular set-piece about Wimbledon that is worth the price of the book alone.) But like her protagonist, and like us, time is on her side. Zadie Smith may well treat us to a London tale again.
Words by Betsy Tobin
Image by Dominique Nabokov
*All who comment will be entered into a prize draw to win a copy of the next book and a TOAST scented candle.
Read more reviews from the TOAST Book Club or purchase our book club titles from [email protected].