One of the advantages of being a writer over a musician is that, for the most part, writers are expected to produce more interesting work as they grow older while music is really a young person’s game. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, those bands and singers who continually reinvent themselves, creating enough original work to transcend their art and become cultural icons. It’s hard to think of someone who fits this description better than Madonna who, although not a character in Zadie Smith’s fifth novel, remains the defining presence throughout.
The unnamed narrator of Swing Time lives essentially through others: she's the childhood friend of aspiring dancer Tracey, who dreams of starring in West End musicals but is continually held back. She's the daughter to a neglectful, impoverished mother who's desperate to educate herself and become a political force in London. And most significantly she's personal assistant to a globetrotting international superstar, a one-named singer called Aimee, who mixes her musical work with fashion shows, photography and the patronisation of a small African village where she builds a school – for girls only – and showers money on the inhabitants (well, the female inhabitants) before shelling out a fortune to adopt a baby and bring her back to the West for a supposedly better life. And just in case Smith worries that she's being too subtle and the reader doesn't get who she's talking about, Aimee's most famous album is not called Ray of Light, but the completely unrelated Illuminated.
This frustrating and desperately worthy novel seems uncertain whether it’s intended as a criticism of the west’s attitude towards the African continent or a celebration of life there. There’s an opportunity to move away from 1980s Band Aid-type stereotypes and show the strength and independence of the townspeople but instead each of the narrator’s many trips to the village is littered with condescension, both to the Africans and to the reader, and little of substance takes place in the scenes anyway.
The tone of the novel is faulty from the start. The first person narrator of a long novel needs to have a lively voice, one that can engage the reader early on but she’s so dull, lacking any discernible wit, intelligence or ambition that she feels less of an independent character and more of an appendage to others, whether friend, daughter or assistant. She’s also curiously sexless and a weak sub-plot towards the end regarding an African immigrant to the UK seems almost tagged on so that she won’t appear entirely lifeless.
That's not to say that the novel does not have some strengths. Madonna – sorry, Aimee –is a vital presence. Unapologetic and determined, she flits through each day in a bubble of private jets, trailed by an enormous entourage all of whom are desperate to be the one walking next to her. As Madonna herself sang on American Life, "I got a lawyer and a manager, an agent and a chef, three nannies, an assistant, and a driver and a jet. A trainer and a butler and a bodyguard or five, a gardener and a stylist, do you think I'm satisfied?" Actually, Aimee does seem quite satisfied. Her work is well received by critics, she moves between artistic projects with enthusiasm, is enormously wealthy and has little patience for what she calls "customers", those people who will do anything to get close to her.
Had Swing Time been a novel about how easily one's identity can get subsumed by daily proximity to someone whose light far outshines one's own, this might have been a more intriguing work but Smith frequently grows bored with her central story and returns to the relationship between the narrator and Tracey, which is terribly underwritten and never really goes anywhere. Ditto the mother-daughter relationship, which doesn't work as the narrator is consistently critical of her mother's desire to improve herself and the community she lives in – the woman is actually doing something with her life – while she herself is living a peripatetic and vicarious existence that can be taken away from her on a moment's whim.
From the start, Zadie Smith has been lauded as a star by the literary press and both White Teeth and On Beauty are elegant and original works. The Autograph Man and NW, on the other hand, are less successful, their plots drifting along in a rather haphazard fashion until an ending of sorts arrives. Unfortunately, Swing Time joins these two earlier books, lacking a consistent narrative drive, an interesting voice or a compelling point of view. By the end, one feels no closer to understanding the central character and is simply left asking: who's that girl?
John Boyne’s tenth novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, will be published in February (Doubleday)