A keen, controlled novel about dance and blackness steps onto a stage of cultural land mines.
Smith, who wowed the world at 24 with her debut novel, White Teeth (2000), once again crafts quicksilver fiction around intense friendship, race, and class. She opens with a scene of that social media–fueled nightmare: public humiliation. “I’d lost my job, a certain version of my life, my privacy,” the unnamed narrator tells us. She was “put on a plane, sent back home, to England, set up with a temporary rental in St. John's Wood.” From this three-paragraph prologue, the story jumps abruptly back 24 years to 1982, when the narrator, a “horse-faced seven-year-old,” meets Tracey, another brown girl in North West London arriving for dance class. The result is a novel-length current of competition, love, and loathing between them. Tracey has the tap-dancing talent; the narrator’s gifts are more subterranean: “elegance attracted me. I liked the way it hid pain.” Tracey struggles for a life onstage while the narrator flies aloft, becoming personal assistant to Aimee, an Australian pop star: “I scheduled abortions, hired dog walkers, ordered flowers, wrote Mother’s Day cards, applied creams, administered injections, squeezed spots, and wiped very occasional break-up tears.” Smith is dazzling in her specificity, evoking predicaments, worldviews, and personalities with a camera-vivid precision. The mothers of the two women cube the complexity of this work, an echo of the four protagonists in Smith’s last novel, NW (2012). All their orbits are distorted by Aimee, the Madonna/Angelina Jolie–like celebrity impulsively building a girls’ school in West Africa. The novel toggles its short chapters between decades and continents, swinging time and geography. Aimee and her entourage dabble in philanthropy; Tracey and the narrator grope toward adulthood; and Fred Astaire, dancing in blackface in Swing Time, becomes an avatar of complexity presiding over the whole thing. In her acknowledgements, Smith credits an anthropological study, Islam, Youth and Modernity in the Gambia. Its insights flare against a portrait of Aimee, on the other side of the matrix, procuring “a baby as easily as she might order a limited-edition handbag from Japan.”
Moving, funny, and grave, this novel parses race and global politics with Fred Astaire’s or Michael Jackson's grace.