This excellent offering from Zadie Smith got me thinking about what makes a really good novel become a classic novel. Of course, there is no definitive answer to that question because the whole thing is so highly subjective, much like in any art form. But for me there are two essential ingredients; one that the particular can effortlessly interchange with the universal, and secondly, that there is something a little magical in the novel. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children comes to mind as does Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Both broke new ground in both the tale and the telling of the tale. Zadie Smith’s latest offering is a great read. No doubt about that. And I will willingly recommend to all and sundry. But is it a classic novel? Probably not.
NW, Smiths previous novel, left me a little cold, I must admit. It shouldn’t have because I have a vested interest in the North West of London. It’s part of my manor, so to speak. But the characters were distant and the plot, such as it was, was too disjointed. Though strangely enough, the recent TV adaption of NW was a cracker. The characters came to life and I truly cared about their fates. It’s rare that a TV adaption of a novel can outshine the original but in this case I think it did just that. But with Swing Time, Zadie Smith is back on track and setting the agenda, which to sum up in a few words; is about exploring the experience of the Black diaspora and its complex relationship to Mother Africa. But Swing time shines because it does so much more than that. Moving effortlessly from the particular to the universal, Swing Time shines a light on the common struggle to find a workable identity in what is becoming a highly-globalised, fractured yet homogenised world.
Zadie’s main protagonist is a young UK woman with a mixed European – Afro-Caribbean heritage. Her mother is passionately engaged in exploring her African heritage whilst she is busy trying to make sense of her own young life, with all its teeming contradictions; sexual, racial and geo-political. In other words, Zadie Smith has created a character that is much more than simply a young Black Briton exploring her identity. The main protagonist is Black, but they could just as easily have been Arabic, Jewish or Italian. The message that emerges from the novel is universal; we all of us, are struggling to create an identity in a highly fluid and fluctuating world. Classes, religions, nations and political and local affiliations are melting before our eyes. Families are broken and reconstituted at an astonishing rate. Whilst a preoccupation with dance is something of a constant, everything else in Swing Time seems to be in free-fall.
This search for belonging and identity is leading us all in unpredictable directions. Citizens want their nations to be great again. Xenophobia is the prevailing wind. The past is a more reassuring place than the future. This ubiquitous uncertainty permeates Swing Time. I know nothing of dance, I know nothing of celebrity. I know nothing of being Black and I know next to nothing about Africa. Yet this novel somehow touches something within the reader that goes well beyond the British Black experience. Zadie Smith puts it well;
All paths lead back there (to Africa) my mother had always told me, but now that I was here, I experienced it not as an exceptional place but as an example of a general rule. Power had preyed on weakness here: all kinds of power local, racial, tribal, royal, national, global, economic on all kinds of weakness, stopping at nothing, not even at the smallest girl child. But power does that everywhere. The world is saturated in blood. Every tribe has their blood-soaked legacy: here was mine. P316
And there lies the power of this novel. Effortlessly moving from the particular to the universal, Swing Time is a bang up-to-date exploration of our modern world. I often try to envision a near future world where ten billion of us stand alone; economically secure, transcended of tribe and place and race; free to explore the delights or otherwise of a fully conscious, material existence. Unfortunately, events seem to be moving in the opposite direction. One of Zadie Smith’s background characters portrays this backward slide into banal tribalism perfectly. Speaking of his time in prison, he explains; “when you were inside , then it wasn’t like the neighbourhood, no, not at all, it was very different, because when you were inside everybody understood that people had better keep to their own kind, and that’s how it was, like stayed with like, there was hardly any mixing, not like up in the flats, and it wasn’t the guards or anyone telling you to do it, that’s just the way it was, tribes stick together, and it even goes by shade, he explained, pulling up his sleeve and pointing to his arm, so all of us that was dark like me, well, we’re over here, tight with each other, always and brown like you two is somewhere over here, and Paki is somewhere else, and Indian somewhere else. White is split too: Irish, Scottish, English. And in the English some of them are BNP and some are all right. Everyone goes with their own is the point and it’s natural. Makes you think.” P184
This is getting close to the essence of Zadie Smith’s latest work yet strangely, when I read reviews of this novel, most seemed not to want to recognize this underlying theme of persistent tribalism. Smith’s central character is fumbling her way through these tribal identities, as are we all, but the conclusion to the novel is wonderfully inconclusive. Swing Time seems to be urging us to move beyond simple allegiances but to what, is left cleverly open ended. It may not be a classic, but it is a damn good read and thought-provokingly perceptive throughout.