The two best people in “Swing Time,” Zadie Smith’s new novel, are real: English poet James Fenton and his partner, black American writer Darryl Pinckney, who give the book’s unnamed narrator respite when she desperately needs it: “Two people creating the time of their own lives, protected somehow by love, not ignorant of history but not deformed by it, either.” Theirs is in many ways the ideal state that the narrator longs for and the arc of her story bends toward.

“Swing Time” is a novel in search of balance — between genders, races and the haves and the have-nots of beauty, talent, status and wealth. After a tease that tells us of drama to come, the story proper begins with the narrator as a little girl, daughter of a Jamaican mother and English father, enthralled by Tracey, another little mixed-race girl in her council housing neighborhood.

The narrator can sing, but Tracey can dance — and dancing is what both girls love most. They take classes; they write stories (“In several … African men ‘lurked in the shadows’ with iron bars to break the knees of lily-white dancers”); they videotape risqué routines that will come back to haunt them, and they love movies such as “Swing Time,” whose plots “were only roads leading to the dance. The story was the price you paid for the rhythm.”

Tracey is that volatile friend who haunts so many novels of female friendship (including Smith’s own “NW”) — gifted and deeply flawed and always so much more herself, so much surer of what she is, than the woman telling the story. And like so many of these “better” best friends, Tracey goes wrong somewhere but never loses her allure.

Meanwhile, the narrator finds herself attached as a personal assistant (one of four) to a pop superstar named Aimee (the closest real-world equivalent would probably be Madonna), whose power Smith conveys as a function of will: “All the labor she put into it … came to seem to me effectively a form of energy in itself, a force capable of creating a dilation in time, as if she really were moving at the speed of light, away from the rest of us — stranded on Earth and aging faster than her — while she looked down on us and wondered why.”

A charitable project of Aimee’s takes her and her entourage to Africa, where the distance between material and spiritual poverty becomes stark, and the narrator’s curious position between the worlds of privilege and need becomes untenable. And it is in Africa, drawn into dancing at an impromptu ceremony, that the narrator finally finds her natural rhythm: “The only way I could carry on was to respond to the movements of the women themselves, who never lost the beat, who heard it through everything.”

This self-actualization comes with a certain irony, as the narrator’s African friend (another “better” girlfriend) remarks, “Even though you are a white girl, you dance like you are a black!”

In 2000, at 24, Zadie Smith blazed onto the literary scene with her novel “White Teeth,” a Dickensian performance for our day, and in each subsequent work she has ever more subtly charted the fraught territory where individual experience negotiates social norms. In “Swing Time,” her first novel in the first person, the transaction becomes more focused and personal, and its cost to the individual powerfully and poignantly clear.

 

Ellen Akins is a writer and writing teacher in Wisconsin.

Swing Time
By: Zadie Smith.
Publisher: Penguin Press, 453 pages, $27.