In a Daily Telegraph review of Zadie Smith’s new novel Swing Time, the reviewer James Walton compares it with Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. The novel involves a narrator and a friend who who live in different social strata of the same North London public housing estate:
Both are mixed race, their “shade of brown… exactly the same”. But with Smith’s Austen-like sensitivity to social gradations, it definitely matters that the unnamed narrator is the posher of the two. Her family’s flat is in a low-rise block, her father is hard-working and her black mother has “a terrific instinct for middle-class mores”. (“No plastic flowers for us… and no crystal figurines.”) Tracey, by contrast, lives in “a high-rise estate of poor reputation”, with a father in and out of prison and a mother who is “obese, afflicted with acne… her thin blonde hair pulled back very tightly in what I knew my mother would call a ‘Kilburn facelift’.”
Even so, after the two meet in a dance class when they’re seven, it’s the fiercer and more talented Tracey who seems destined for greater things. For a while, in fact, it looks as if Swing Time may be in the tradition of such novels as The Great Gatsby, Brideshead Revisited and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, where a resignedly overshadowed narrator tells us about a more charismatic friend. But, as it turns out, this is only one strand in a book that examines many of Smith’s familiar themes – race, fame, pop culture, female self-delusion and the whole tricky business of roots – from an impressive variety of perspectives.
This point of comparison seems fairly strained because the narrator in Brideshead is of a lower class than and is dazzled by Sebastian’s aristocratic manners and family. In the end, Charles Ryder is not “overshadowed” by Sebastian’s success–far from it. And the difference in their social standing is far more pronounced than that suggested in Smith’s novel. As the reviewer goes on to explain, there are several other storylines that undercut this superficial comparison. But the reviewer has yet another comparison between the two writers up his sleeve which he withholds until his conclusion:
… at times her new novel feels a bit like Brideshead Revisited in another way, with the reckless, irresistible comedy of the author’s early books [e.g., White Teeth] laid aside in favour of something deeper, more heartfelt, but less stirringly energetic. Of course, any writer can write whatever they like, especially when they’re as good as Zadie Smith. Even so, Waugh did go on to reconcile both modes in his Sword of Honour trilogy– and my own hope is that one day she, too, will find a way to combine the seriousness of her recent novels with the comic zest of her early ones.
One can certainly join in that hope.