Few contemporary writers are as closely linked to a particular geographical area as Zadie Smith. The streets of north-west London—specifically Willesden and Kilburn, where Smith grew up—provided the rich backdrop for her extraordinary 2000 début White Teeth, a multiple prize-winner written when she was still an undergraduate at Cambridge University. Parts of 2005’s On Beauty were set there too, and her 2012 novel NW took its very title from the area. So when we meet at her house, a stone’s throw from where she grew up, to discuss Swing Time, it is quite a shock to hear her say: “I can’t ever imagine writing about this neighbourhood in any description ever again. I think I’m done.”
Swing Time is Smith’s fifth novel and, in an autumn schedule crammed to the rafters with big literary names (Hamish Hamilton alone will also publish new novels from Jonathan Safran Foer and Ali Smith before Christmas), it is surely one of the most anticipated. It’s an ambitious, intelligent, wide-ranging novel about race and class, politics and charity, parenthood and poverty. But at its heart is the story of the friendship between two little girls who first meet at Miss Isabel’s dance class in a north London church hall in 1982.
Gathering outside the hall for the first time, the narrator (unnamed throughout the novel) notices Tracey immediately: “Our shade of brown was exactly the same—as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both.” Their friendship starts slowly, but progresses, despite parental disapproval. Both girls are mixed-race and live on neighbouring council estates but, it transpires, have vastly different home lives and aspirations. Smith is terrific on the complexities and nuances of childhood friendship between girls as they grow close, then fall out, sometimes for no apparent reason.“I think with girls you forget how early it starts and how brutal it is,” Smith says. “The incredible amount of information girls take in at an early age and learn to work with and manipulate...I think it must be a necessity of being physically weaker, it’s a biological thing. If you are under threat of being murdered, basically, all the time, you have to be very wily. Girls are incredibly adaptive, and socially astute, from the start.”
Smith deftly evokes a 1980s childhood, with very few specific details. “My instinct is that if you want to make [readers] feel like it’s their childhood, it has to be kind of open in a way, almost like a fairy story. There are tiny little things to make you think, ‘Yes, that was the 1980s’, but the more open it is, the more people can enter into it,” she says. “If you just go with your gut or your surface memory, you can kind of implant it in the reader. Even if they didn’t do any of those things or have any of those interests, they start to feel like somehow it is their experience.”
Several characters are unnamed in the novel— including the narrator, and both of her parents—as Smith’s intention is for the novel to be “fable-like...the mother, the father; so that when you read it you thought about your mother, your father,” she says. “It’s that balance of trying to tell a story that is very specific but also doesn’t make people think, ‘Oh, that happens to those kinds of people.’ That’s what is always hard to do, particularly when the differences between your reader and your character are often wide.”
Swing Time moves from the 1980s, through the ‘90s to the 2000s, but moves back and forth in time so that the reason for the rupture in the girls’ relationship is revealed slowly. The narrator leaves her council estate behind, first for university, then for an assistant position at a newly formed TV station aimed at a young audience, where she first encounters her future employer, Aimee, a global popstar of Madonna-esque levels of fame. She becomes an assistant to Aimee (one of three), travelling the world, until Aimee decides to use some of her wealth to set up a school for girls in a West African country.
The narrator’s life diverges from Tracey’s sharply but dance is a central thread in the narrative—from the videos of old black-and-white musicals the girls watch over and over, to their shared admiration for the moves of Michael Jackson, to the dancer the narrator encounters in West Africa: the kankurang, a wildly swaying orange shape covered in overlapping leaves and wielding two machetes as long as arms.
“If I think about something that gives me pure pleasure, it would be dancing,” says Smith. “I guess that, mixed up with being in America in this—not to sound too grand about it—historical moment around blackness and living under Obama, which I have been doing for eight years...All of that is mixed up in my head in the form of this book.
“I was reading a lot of slave narratives and black history—none of which is perhaps obvious from the book...I don’t know. I was thinking about the possibility of writing about black experience in a kind of essence through one character. So for me it was always going to be fable-like.”
Smith was very influenced by a book she first read as a child (which, due to its graphic content, is definitely not aimed at children) The Black Book, edited by Toni Morrison. It contains, Smith explains, “all the things a black woman might have cut out of newspapers and kept as a reminder of what she had lived through. That was what I was thinking about; could you try and express a more general experience through just one person?”
Swing Time is the first novel that Smith has written in the first person. “I just never even considered it before. I always hated it so it’s some kind of personal breakthough,” she says with a laugh. “I always thought it was very limiting and I always advised my students [she teaches creative writing at New York University] against it. How can you express other characters, other people, in the first person? But, as it turns out, it can be quite flexible. The ‘I’ character in the book, she’s judgemental, she’s not particularly nice, but you are able to reveal her character and other people’s characters.”
When I ask her to describe the novel to booksellers, she squirms. “I think all my novels sound really bad when you try and describe them because they don’t have that kind of plot, or hook, or whatever, they are more about a mood.” She thinks for a moment, “it’s about that first part of life, from nought to 33, before things start getting really serious”, she says, and laughs. “I guess it’s a bildungsroman in a weird kind of way. I think it’s a book about women, not only for women, I hope, but about women’s relationship with each other.
“I wanted to make people feel something. Feel sad, cry even. I like the idea that a book could have those kinds of effects, rather than [someone] just reading it and thinking, ‘Isn’t she clever?’, or ‘Isn’t that well done?’, or whatever. I wanted to express something about how it is to be in the world as a black woman. Not just for other black women, but for people generally.”
Swing Time is, among her novels, the “closest to what I’ve tried to do”, she says. “And definitely to me it’s the end of something.” It may be the last time she writes about London, which makes me quite sad—she is a masterful chronicler of the city and its people. But she is excited about what will come next. “And whether they will even be novels, I don’t know.”
Imprint: Hamish Hamilton
Formats: HB (£18.99)
Editor: Simon Prosser
Agent: Georgia Garret, Rogers, Coleridge & White
This article originally appeared in The Bookseller magazine of 2nd September 2016.