Doubles — pairs of friends, rivals and families; contrasting ideologies and views of the world — animate Zadie Smith’s novels, as surely as doubles and doppelgangers haunt many Hitchcock movies.
Her astonishing debut novel, “White Teeth” (2000), recounted the story of two World War II vets — polar opposites and best friends — and their extended families, opening out into a teeming, Bruegel-esque portrait of a multicultural London. “On Beauty” (2005), another magical big-city novel (set mainly in Boston), also depicted two very different families with intertwined lives. And the disappointing “NW” (2012) used the diverging stories of two childhood friends to look at the potent and ever-shifting dynamics of money and class.
Smith’s latest, “Swing Time” (Penguin, $27), works a variation on this setup. This time it’s two spirited London girls and their very different trajectories.
This novel addresses many themes that have animated Smith’s work since the start: the competing claims of family, cultural heritage and politics on identity; how personal imperatives are shaped (or not) by public events; the mix of emulation, resentment and rebellion that inform children’s attitudes toward their parents.
Told in the first person, the narrative cuts back and forth in time, alternating between persuasive chapters about the unnamed narrator’s memories of childhood (when she and her friend Tracey both aspired to be dancers) and dull, strangely generic chapters about her grown-up experiences, working as an assistant to a famous singer and would-be humanitarian named Aimee, who can “procure a baby” for adoption “as easily as she might order a limited-edition handbag from Japan.”
Smith conveys her heroines’ youthful passion for dance — a calling that only Tracey has the talent to seriously pursue — and the push-pull of their passive-aggressive friendship.
Tracey — whose absent father has been in jail, and whose angry mother is an enabler of Tracey’s worst impulses — is the diva, who wears flashy clothes, has lots of boyfriends and takes a lot of drugs. The narrator is the good girl, the self-conscious, prudent one, who plays Ethel to Tracey’s flamboyant Lucy. Eager to escape the shadow of her chilly, politically ambitious mother, the narrator goes off to college and eventually takes a job that requires her to play Ethel to Aimee’s Lucy.
Aimee is a complete celebrity stereotype — a rote combination of Madonna and Angelina Jolie. The chapters that chronicle Aimee’s much-publicized efforts to build a school in an unnamed African country are beyond tedious — Aimee jetting in from her cosseted life in Britain and America to visit a village and meet with children and politicians, all the while trailed by video cameras. These sections are so perfunctorily rendered that they often feel like stuffing to fill out the novel’s schematic structure, which moves between present-day, Aimee-centric sections and flashback, Tracey-centric ones.
Some of the narrator’s experiences in Africa — combined with her efforts to understand shifting attitudes toward race in music and dance — are meant to raise larger questions about cultural appropriation, and the relationship between the West and the developing world. But these issues do not spring organically from this clumsy novel — which showcases its author’s formidable talents in only half its pages while bogging down the rest of the time in formulaic and predictable storytelling.