Some of the themes in Zadie Smith’s new novel will be familiar to readers from her previous work: growing up in the diverse London suburb of Willesden, female friendship, exploring racial identity and the nuances of class difference in contemporary Britain. Yet these are explored here in a new way through the lens of music and dance. In addition, the plot takes us to Africa, to Senegal, raising ethical questions about foreign aid, cultural appropriation and globalisation, hinting at the challenges these will bring in the years to come.
The novel starts with the girlhood friendship between the narrator and Tracey who meet at Miss Isabel’s dance class in Willesden. They become friends through a shared identity- both are mixed race-and through a passion for old musicals, song and dance. Socially, they come from rather different backgrounds. Tracey’s mother is white working class and practically a single parent, whereas the narrator’s mother is an intelligent, politically aware, aspiring black woman, refreshingly absent domestically, as her main focus is catching up on her own education. The narrator’s father is kindly and loving but unambitious and ineffectual and eventually the parents separate as the mother educates herself beyond him.
The novel traces the girls’ lives through primary and secondary school in North London with its mix of cultures, music and adolescent experiences. As their music and dance tastes expand beyond Fred Astaire, their paths diverge. Tracey turns out to have real talent for dance and she goes to stage school, whereas the narrator-whose name we never know- completes her education at the local comp and goes to university on the south coast to study media. Their actual contact is now minimal, though the narrator occasionally hears how her friend’s career is progressing through chance or family contacts.
Post university, our narrator works in the media and her life, and the narrative, is from then on in dominated by digital communication and social media-she is forever on her laptop or glued to her phone. She lands a job with singer celebrity Aimée, a white pop star, world famous and based in New York and the focus of the novel switches to her relationship with Aimée in a setting which is now global. Global because Aimée decides to use her considerable wealth in setting up a school for girls in a rural area in Africa-which we learn later may be Senegal-and the narrator is part of the team getting the project off the ground. And this process is recounted in short chapters alternating with chapters in London and New York as our narrator flies around the world at the behest of her boss.
The chapters on Africa contain some sensitive writing on our English urban narrator’s first impressions. I enjoyed her descriptions of the river, the village, daily life and ceremonies and her own reactions to this new culture. A new cast of characters is introduced: Lamin, the local teacher, lovely Hawa, cheerful and vital despite the limitations of village life for her, Fern, the serious Brasilian NGO worker. Over her many visits, our narrator befriends them and through their stories Zadie Smith explores several big questions. I felt some issues were dealt with in far too summary a fashion- just a page for the problems of credit or attitudes to homosexuality- their mention felt rather tokenistic and could have been omitted. On the other hand, the question of women’s freedom explored through Hawa’s story – her marriage options and the community’s expectations of her- was well described, refracted through the lens of our Western narrator, for whom freedom is all.
The overarching theme though in this section of the book- the impact of Western aid and celebrity funding on rural villages-was dealt with well. We see Aimée throwing money at the school without thinking of the consequences for the community, particularly the boys. It is Fern who thoughtfully uses school space and time for prayer and growing vegetables to encourage the children to stay there for a whole day’s learning. There are excruciating scenes of Aimée incorporating dance moves from the village into her show, as well as a love interest which is clearly exploitative. The trouble for me was that I found Aimée so loathsome that I really didn’t want to spend as much time with her as we did in the novel and it also seemed implausible that our sensitive narrator with her developing awareness of the problematic nature of the project should stay in her employment so long.
The last section of the book and the ending I found disappointing. There are a few unlikely twists of the plot and the narrator eventually loses her job and returns to London. She finds that her mother is seriously ill and, now an MP, is being harassed by emails from Tracey. Though Tracey did make it to the West End stage- and there is an excellent analysis of Showboat, which is one of my least favourite musicals- her career has ended and she is the mother of three young children. The two young women meet again as the narrator goes round to talk to her about the harassment and the novel ends there.
So what to make of this novel which rambles rather through time and space? The North London milieu in which the girls grow up allows Zadie Smith to do what she excels in: depicting the complexities and nuances of the English class system. I was riveted by the scene in which Tracey causes mischief at the birthday party of nice middle class Lily Beaumont and loved the gentle irony in the depiction of the mother’s rise to the fringes of Hampstead. The relationships between women are compelling. The friendship between the narrator and Tracey is multifaceted, including jealousy, rivalry and spite as well as shared passions, resembling the friendship between Lila and Lenu in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. The characterisation of the mother and the changing relationship between mother and daughter threads through the novel and has a moving ending. Still, I felt that covering all this and the project in Africa was too ambitious, involving too many themes and too many characters which resulted in some superficial treatment and implausible plot connections. And consequently I was only intermittently engaged with the characters and the plot. There is some great writing here but it is not Zadie Smith’s best book.