“The baby was surrounded by love. It’s a question of what love gives you the right to do.”

Zadie Smith’s latest novel Swing Time is about two young girls, Tracey and a nameless narrator, who live in council housing of 1980s London. These young girls are of mixed parentage, born into different shades of brown as a result. The girls met in dance school. They are not exactly social misfits but are not entirely accepted by their classmates, as is apparent when they get invited to Lily Bingham’s tenth birthday party. The two girls are completely out of their depth, as are their mothers, who are clueless on how to guide the youngsters.

“Was it the kind of thing where you dropped your kid off? Or was she, as the mum, expected to come into the house? The invitation said a trip to the cinema – but who’d pay for this ticket? The guest or the house? Did you have to take a gift? What kind of gift were we getting?…It was as if the party was taking in some bewildering foreign land, rather than a three-minute walk away, in a house on the other side of the park.”

Swing Time is narrated in first person bringing to the story an intimacy, a close involvement between the reader and narrator, which would be missing if the story had been told in the third person. This closeness between narrator and reader helps particularly if the novel is read as a bildungsroman.

The firm childhood friendship between the narrator and Tracey seems to wither away in adulthood. Yet the narrator’s flashbacks focus inevitably on the time she spent growing up in Thatcherite London with Tracey, experiences that inform her adult life. This emphasises the quality of “shared history”, an important aspect of friendships – a characteristic trait of Smith’s fiction – to the writer.

The story gathers pace once the billionaire singer, Aimee, hires the narrator as one of her personal assistants. The storytelling pace matches the heady life of the superstar who flits through her life juggling with various roles, including those of mother, performer, musician, and philanthropist (doing “good work” in Africa by sponsoring schools).

No easy read

Trying to read Swing Time in the traditional manner is an excruciating task. The sentences are structured unpredictably – sometimes running on in Jamesian style for pages on end in single, uninterrupted paragraphs. The swift shifts in tone from meditative introspection to commentary and then sharp judgement can be disconcerting. But if you drop the pre-set expectation of what the book should deliver, to think of it as a novel written by an artist and a mother, it suddenly transforms into a readable novel. It is more about an artist’s being a successful professional while managing her time as a mother.

Here, for instance, is the narrator talking about her mother who puts herself through college while her daughter is still in school. Later, the mother becomes a prominent politician.

“Oh, it’s very nice and rational and respectable to say that a woman has every right to life, to her ambitions, to her needs, and so on – it’s what I’ve always demanded myself – but as a child, no, the truth is it’s a war of attrition, rationality doesn’t come into it, not one bit, all you want from your mother is that she once and for all admit that she is your mother and only your mother, and that her battle with the rest of life is over. She has to lay down her arms and come to you. And if she doesn’t do it, then it’s really a war, and it was a war between my mother and me. Only as an adult did I come to truly admire her – especially in the last, painful years of her life – for all that she had done to claw some space in this world for herself. When I was young her refusal to submit to me confused and wounded me, especially as I felt none of the usual reasons of refusal applied. I was her only child and she had no job – not back then – and she hardly spoke to the rest of the family. As far as I was concerned, she had nothing but time. Yet still I couldn’t get her complete submission! My earliest sense of her was of a woman plotting an escape, from me, from the very role of motherhood.”

There are portraits, references and pithy observations on mothering or the relationship between mothers and children. There are the mothers of the two girls – Tracey and the narrator, the grandmothers in the family compound of African schoolteacher Hawa, the mothers of the African school children, Aimee and her children and Tracey and her brood. In some senses this novel, with its brimming cultural references, especially to the recent past, also becomes a record of events for the generation of Smith’s children.

Can mothers write?

In June 2013, Smith along with Amerian novelist Jane Smiley, objected to the suggestion made by journalist and author Lauren Sandler that they should restrict the size of their families if they want to avoid limiting their careers. Writing in The Guardian, Zadie Smith said, “I have two children. Dickens had 10 – I think Tolstoy did, too. Did anyone for one moment worry that those men were becoming too fatherish to be writeresque? Does the fact that Heidi Julavits, Nikita Lalwani, Nicole Krauss, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vendela Vida, Curtis Sittenfeld, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison and so on and so forth (I could really go on all day with that list) have multiple children make them lesser writers?” said Smith. “Are four children a problem for the writer Michael Chabon – or just for his wife, the writer Ayelet Waldman?” Smith added that the real threat “to all women’s freedom is the issue of time, which is the same problem whether you are a writer, factory worker or nurse”. A sentiment echoed in Swing Time when she writes: “The fundamental skill of all mothers [is] the management of time.”

Despite the acrimony and occasional distancing in their relationships, it is Tracey’s fierce love for her children that the narrator learns to appreciate.

“She was right above me, on her balcony, in a dressing gown and slippers, her hands in the air, turning, turning, her children around her, everybody dancing.”

Swing Time is mesmerising, if at times a challenging read. Read it as the portrait of an artist and a mother.

Swing Time, Zadie Smith, Hamish Hamilton.