If ever a novel conjured a sound and dance track, it is “Swing Time,” a multilayered tour-de-force from Zadie Smith. She begins with an epigram from northern Nigeria: “When the music changes, so does the dance.”
At its cerebral core burns a lifelong rivalry between two girls growing up in shabby northwest London of the 1980s: Tracey can dance, the girl telling the story cannot. But she is a student of the form, studying old film clips and dance biographies, scouring them as her Talmudic key to “achieve anything in this world.”
One exemplar is Fred Astaire. “I became fixated, too,” the narrator confides, “upon Katharine Hepburn’s famous Fred and Ginger theory: He gives her class, she gives him sex. Was this a general rule? Did all friendships — all relations — involve this discreet and mysterious exchange of qualities, this exchange of power?”
This fascination with intense friendship — a signature preoccupation of Smith’s fiction — began with her first book, “White Teeth,” a novel centered on the bond between two World War II soldiers, Bangladeshi and British, played out in peacetime London. It arrived 16 years ago, when Smith was 24, to a supernova of critical acclaim.
Now 40, Smith burnishes her place in the literary firmament with her fifth novel, for which Astaire serves as uneasy avatar. The work is so absorbing that a reader might flip it open randomly and be immediately caught up. Its precision is thrilling even as it grows into a book-length meditation on cultural appropriation, played out on a celebrity-besotted global stage.
The story steps off with, “It was the first day of my humiliation.” A tense, funny five-page prologue introduces our social-media disgraced narrator, freshly dumped onto a plane and parked in a temporary rental in London. “I’d lost my job, a certain version of my life, my privacy,” she says before soothing herself with an abiding girlhood comfort: the 1936 movie “Swing Time.”
Then, just as abruptly as this banishment materializes, the novel jumps back to 1982. The narrator is 7. Her mother is enrolling her in Saturday dance class, where she meets Tracey. Smith calls this section “Early Days” but it might be called “Before the Fall.” And, true to creation stories, the snakes are already poised and multiplying in the garden.
The initial connection between the girls is unspoken and immediate, “two iron filings drawn to a magnet.” The narrator is the only child of a politically ambitious black feminist and her mostly pliant white English husband; Tracey is the only child of an obese, lower-class white woman who — visited by her daughter’s absent black father — produces “a terrible feminine wailing, it sounded like a screaming fox.”
Smith’s novels are set in motion by character, complex portraits that are revelatory of race and class but safe from the didacticism of, say, a contemporary social novel like Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom.”
Consider the narrator of “Swing Time” looking back: “I can see that our mothers must have seemed a little careless when, informed by a teacher of some misbehavior in the playground, they would — instead of reprimanding the child — begin to shout at the teacher. But we understood our mothers a little better. We knew that they, in their own time, had feared school, just as we did now, feared the arbitrary rules and felt shamed by them, by the new uniforms they couldn’t afford, the baffling obsession with quiet, the incessant correcting of their original patois or cockney, the sense that they could never do anything right anyway.”
For the reader who has inwardly tut-tutted over the moms who blew off parent-teacher conferences, here is a useful insight. For the narrator, her mother is the galling exception who turns tables on the teachers and manages to lift herself far above her station.
Between the girls, the trajectory is different. Tracey has the gift but the narrator has guile. Her mother is withering in her dismissal of dance, gesturing to her daughter’s body, saying, “that will never matter, not in this culture, not for these people, so all you’re doing is playing their game by their rules, and if you play that game, I promise you, you’ll end up a shade of yourself.”
While Tracey flounders, the narrator starts college. “Swing Time” expertly evokes the earnest intermingling of weed, loneliness, ideology and bodies. College spits her out to the ignominy of pizza shop work, but then fate conjures Aimee, a tiny Australian dance and pop colossus — a bit Madonna, a bit Taylor Swift, a bit Angelina Jolie. And voila, the star impulsively turns the feckless young woman into her personal assistant. Ten years go by.
“I scheduled abortions, hired dog walkers, ordered flowers, wrote Mother’s Day cards, applied creams, administered injections, squeezed spots, wiped very occasional break-up tears,” the narrator remembers in the granular clarity of Smith’s prose.
A clever structure keeps this long novel from wheezing — it alternates its short chapters between Aimee’s escapades in West Africa building a girls’ school and the narrator’s past. Scenes of poverty and improvisation on different continents amplify each other. So do the do-gooders picking at the edges.
In England, the narrator’s mother pursues social justice as a back-bench MP. In Africa, glamorous Aimee declares government useless. She insists evolution be taught at her school, but in the rainy season, her team finds “a third of the kids were off with malaria, half a classroom ceiling fallen in, the toilet contract unfulfilled and the solar-panel-powered electricity circuits rusted and corrupted.” The big problem, however, isn’t pedagogy or plumbing, it’s Aimee’s wavering attention. The cherry on top of this doomed confection is the pop star’s determination to adopt an African infant.
In this way, Smith swings the reader back to appropriation, to Fred Astaire tapping in blackface, a cultural complexity admirably parsed in Brian Seibert’s 2015 nonfiction “What the Eye Hears.”
What the narrator hears, in gingerly challenging pale-white Aimee’s costuming herself in Asante cloth, is this claptrap — the performer “was an artist, and artists have to be allowed to love things, to touch them and to use them, because art ... was love.” Was it possible to both love something and leave it alone, the narrator wonders aloud. An incredulous Aimee counters, “Have you ever been in love?”
Now there’s a question — a classic — to blur a multitude of sins.
Long manages the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards at the Cleveland Foundation.
Penguin Press: 464 pp., $27