Autumn by Ali Smith

I have finally read a novel by Ali Smith and enjoyed it, though it is distracting to explain why with so many exuberant accolades and comments all over it saying how brilliant it is, I wish I could just read without the expectation this over abundance of blurbs brings. She is clearly the darling of British literary media and publishing, however all the superlatives are a little over the top in my opinion.

Autumn is the first in a series of books she has said she will write, named after the seasons. Winter has just come out and I’ve read some good reviews that suggest it is as good as, and some say even better than Autumn.

Autumn moves back and forth in time and is mostly narrated through the relationship of Elisabeth and her mother’s neighbour Daniel. For her homework, Elisabeth should interview a neighbour and ask certain questions, her mother doesn’t approve and suggests she makes it up. She does. A few days later the mother invites the neighbour to read what her daughter had written. This moment signals the beginning of what will become a special relationship between Daniel, a foreign octogenarian and the teenage Elisabeth.

As the novel opens Daniel appears to be hallucinating and while doing so philosophises about death. Elisabeth is 32 and a junior lecturer in London on a zero hours contract.  She is visiting Daniel Gluck in a home. Every aspect of life is in its Autumn.

In the background the country is changing, attitudes are changing, apathy is being replaced by protest. Seasons change as they always do, legacy’s are lost and forgotten, occasionally revived, survive.

“It’s all right to forget, you know” he said. “It’s good to. In fact, we have to forget things sometimes. Forgetting it is important.  We do it on purpose. It means we get a bit of a rest. Are you listening? We have to forget. Or we’d never sleep, ever again.”

The narrative skips back to her childhood and then forward twenty years to Daniel in the care facility. He is now 101 years old, Elisabeth visits him and reads to him, he is always asleep, but she talks to him anyway and remembers the things they used to talk about when she was young.

She hasn’t visited her mother for years, but now while she visits Daniel, she spends time with her mother, they are related but alien to each other. They don’t try to make each other understand. Something in Daniel nourishes Elisabeth and helps her to grow, to question, and eventually to understand.

Today he looks like a Roman senator, his sleeping head noble, his eyes shut and blank as a statue, his eyebrows mere moments of frost.

It is a privilege to watch someone sleep, Elizabeth tells herself. It is a privilege to be able to witness someone both here and not here. To be included in someone’s absence, it is an honour, and it asks quiet. It asks respect.

No. It is awful.

It is fucking awful.

It is awful to be on the literal other side of his eyes.

“Mr Gluck,” she says.

Pauline Boty by Lewis Morley, Sept 1963

Daniel describes images to Elisabeth, which years later she recognises, a painting by the British Pop artist Pauline Boty, introducing an element of mystery and intrigue to do with an old scandal and the premature deaths of two young women. We’re not give much detail, and I’m assuming most of us will never have heard of Pauline Boty or Christine Keeler, women whose art and stories were quickly forgotten, denied even.

It’s a cryptic read that enters into subjects, into the lives of a small group of characters without providing all the detail, enough to entice the reader, to hint at the depth of a connection and leaves it before we can entirely understand, we too must imagine, join the dots, make of it what we will, catch the leaves before the fall, but not worry if we don’t, they’ll come around again next season.

 

Advertisements

Top Reads of 2017

In 2017 I anticipated that I wouldn’t read as much as I had read in previous years, due to giving my reading time over to some personal studies and the reading that would accompany them and to the social visits I had from many of the men in my family, brother, Uncle, Fathers. As a result, less of my writing appeared here in Word by Word and more of it found its way in the old-fashioned long form between the pages of journals that I keep.

However, I did still manage to read 48 books from 21 countries (10 in translation) including Sri Lanka, Trinidad, Turkey, Ireland, Nigeria, Ghana, Palestine, Italy, Canada, Scotland, Pakistan, France, South Africa, Guadeloupe, Greece, Spain, Mauritius, Australia and of course the UK and the US.

Outstanding Read of 2017

The one stand out novel for me came very early in the year, in February and I knew as soon as I finished it, that it was likely to be my outstanding novel of 2017.

This novel came out with a lot of fanfare and so I was a little dubious to begin with, novels that arrive with great expectations have a tendency to disappoint avid literary readers, so I read with intrigue what other reviewers had to say. Some loved it, others saw it as a collection of stories, and then my very dear Aunt, who totally knows what kind of books I love sent it to me for my birthday. Of course I dove right in.

Here is what I had to say in my review:

“I love, love, loved this novel and I am in awe of its structure and storytelling, the authenticity of the stories, the three-dimensional characters, the inheritance and reinvention of trauma, and the rounding of all those stories into the healing return. I never saw that ending coming and the build up of sadness from the stories of the last few characters made the last story all the more moving, I couldn’t stop the tears rolling down my face.”

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana, but lived most of her life in the US. After revisiting Ghana, she began writing her novel by asking herself what it meant to be black in America today and through the lives and descendants of two sisters, her narrative will arrive eventually in the modern day. Here’s what she was trying to do and in my opinion totally succeeds. Read my review here.

I began Homegoing in 2009 after a trip to Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle [where slaves were incarcerated]. The tour guide told us that British soldiers who lived and worked in the castle often married local women – something I didn’t know. I wanted to juxtapose two women – a soldier’s wife with a slave. I thought the novel would be traditionally structured, set in the present, with flashbacks to the 18th century. But the longer I worked, the more interested I became in being able to watch time as it moved, watch slavery and colonialism and their effects – I wanted to see the through-line.

Top Reads 2017

Here in no particular order are a few books that have stayed with me long after I read them and the year has passed.

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan is a slim novella, the third book by this young Irish writer and his best in my opinion.

The story is told in a way that pulls you inside the book and makes you feel it happening. Incredibly the author writes from the first person perspective of Melody, a 33-year-old woman who discovers she is pregnant to a young Traveller, a turning point that disrupts the confined world she has created and had been living in.

He has such penetrative powers of observation, that create a sense of foreboding and intrigue, it’s a book you’ll likely read in one sitting and then wonder in awe, how he did that. Just brilliant.

You can read my full review here.

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar was published by Gallic Books new imprint Aardvark Bureau, I’ve loved all the books they’ve brought out under this imprint and Salt Creek might just be the best so far. It’s an historical novel, inspired by the events of the authors family, who immigrated to Australia from Britain, portraying one family trying to find success in farming in a harsh, unforgiving environment of South Australia.

This too is a book that gets under your skin, especially as a woman reading about the lives of other women and children (particularly daughters) who are at the mercy of the dreams and aspirations of men, men who have little empathy for how disruptive and out of the comfort zone, this life might be for a woman, and ironically, on the contrary, how quickly young children adapt, how easy it is for them to integrate and thus cross societal taboos when it comes to mixing with indigenous populations. It’s a novel richly populated with colonial issues of the time, that make you wish at times, that it could have a fantasy element, where it all might end differently.

Read my full review of Salt Creek here.

The Complete Claudine by Colette (translated by Antonia White) was my One Summer Chunkster for 2017, a French classic, relatively little known outside France among general readers, but an author who should be more widely read, especially by young adult readers, as it charts the young Claudine’s journey through her last year in school, then her adventures in Paris with her father, through marriage and into maturity.

The book includes an excellent introduction by Judith Thurman, which I devoted a full post to, as she was such a fascinating woman, so far ahead of the era in which she lived, being such a free spirit, determined to experience love, to live her artistic desires and be financially independent, wild and adorable!

Below are the links to the introductory piece and the four books that are contained in this one volume.

Sidonie Gabrielle Colette by Leopold Reutlinger

A brilliant choice for my one fat summer book of the year.

The Complete Claudine – An Introduction

Claudine at School

Claudine in Paris

Claudine Married

Claudine and Annie

Two Old Women by Velma Wallis is a quirky fable-like book I read about and was intrigued by, recommended by a fellow reader. It is an Alaskan legend of betrayal, courage and survival, one which features, as the title suggests, two old women.

This is one of those stories, like Najaf Mazari’s excellent collection The Honey Thief, handed down in the oral tradition from generation to generation and now finally, thankfully, someone has captured it in print, so it can endure and be discovered by an even wider audience than originally intended.

I loved it because it teaches us the value of paying attention to our (women) elders, who possess much wisdom, something that if ignored wastes away and can even be forgotten by those who possess it. Let not our elders sit too quietly, lest they believe they have creaky bones and limp minds! Read my full review here.

My Story by Jo Malone is one of the six memoirs I read in 2017 and the one that was the most intriguing and personal to me, not because I’m a fan of her perfumes, but because I too have a love of the aromas of plants, flowers, resins, herbs and like to create remedies from essential oils and mix them with other plant oils to use therapeutically.

Knowing Jo Malone to be a high-end luxury brand, I had little idea that she came from such fascinating and humble beginnings and was a woman of such incredible perseverance. As I say below, I loved it!

“I absolutely loved this book, from it’s at times heartbreaking accounts of struggle in childhood, to the discovery of her passion, the development of her creativity and the strong work ethic that carried her forward, to finding the perfect mate and the journey they would go on together.”

Read my full review here.

Worthy Mentions

I could go on, but rather I will just say that I also really enjoyed the excellent debut novel Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo, Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller was an accomplished evocative novel, Nayomi Munaweera’s Island of a Thousand Mirrors was as exquisite, heart-breaking and lyrical as I expected after her brilliant What Lies Between Us I’d read in 2016.

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso and The Story of the Cannibal Woman by Maryse Condé were a brilliant pair to read together, both placing a black Caribbean woman in South Africa while observing her relations with others around her, in a post-apartheid era. And personally I thought Zadie Smith’s depiction of female friendship in Swing Time easily rivalled Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, with her poignant insights and ever-present mastery of that sense of place and community, particularly in London. And though it didn’t reach the heights of Homegoing for me, Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing also left an equally strong impression:

“how living through Chairman Mao’s and the subsequent communist regime imprinted its effect on people’s behaviours forcing them to change, leaving its trace in their DNA which was passed on to subsequent generations, who despite living far from where those events took place, continue to live with a feeling they can’t explain, but which affects the way they live, or half-live, as something crucial to living a fulfilled life is missing. “

So did any of these books make your top reads for 2017? If not, what was your one Outstanding Read of the Year?

Happy Reading!

Order now via BookDepository 

 

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

I’ve been meaning to read this novel for some time, I remember when it was first published it was widely read by  bloggers, it won a National Book Award in the US and it is covered in esteemed comments from reviews within many well-known media titles.

“Beautifully written … A powerful depiction of grinding poverty, where somehow, amid the deprivation, the flame of filial affection survives and a genuine spirit of community is able to triumph over everything the system and nature can throw at it.” DAILY MAIL

I decided to read it now before her new novel comes out in November, Sing Unburied Sing (already on the short list for the 2017 National Book Award for fiction) and because with all the hurricanes and storms acting out currently, a novel set in the twelve days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, seemed timely.

It’s a novel about a family struggling to stay together under already challenging circumstances, about to become even more trying with a grade 5 hurricane heading their way. It is set (as is the new novel) in a fictional, rural coastal town named Bois Sauvage, Mississippi.  Interestingly, the French edition of the novel is called Bois Sauvage, meaning Wild Wood, the author playing with the world savage and salvage, connected to the theme of survival.

It’s narrated from the point of view of fifteen year old Esch, the only girl in the family, their mother died after the long and difficult birth of Junior when she was eight years old. The children have adapted to living without their mother, though Esch is vulnerable in this all male environment which attracts other males, despite the protection of her brothers. She is becoming a woman, without another to guide her, and men who don’t know how to. Her only female reference is within the romantic tragic classic she is reading, referred to often throughout the text, the tragic anti-heroine Medea. Esch too is blinded by love and fearful of its outcome.

“In Mythology, I am still reading about Medea and the quest for the Golden Fleece. Here is someone I recognize. When Medea falls in love with Jason, it grabs me by my throat. I can see her. Medea sneaks Jason things to help him: ointments to make him invincible, secrets in rocks. She has magic, could bend the natural to the unnatural. But even with all her power, Jason bends her like a young pine in a hard wind; he makes her double in two. I know her.”

The father is an alcoholic and although that seems dire, the children are familiar with his habits and behaviours and seem to manage to keep out of his way when they need to and to care for him when he is a danger to himself.

For most of the novel the father is unable to do anything, he is either absent, asleep or suffering from an accident that  further reduces his ability to manage his role as father. Despite this, he pays attention to the preparations for the hurricane and even if he can’t do things himself, he doesn’t give up giving instructions to his children, the one thing he won’t fail at is to keep them safe.

The other main narrative concerns the plight of one of the son’s Skeetah’s prize pit bull China, who has given birth to pups that are extremely valuable, though nothing is more valuable to him than her, he rarely leaves her side, except to get food or medicine for her or her pups. It is a struggle for him to care for them all and the approaching hurricane will test his loyalty.

In all, the strongest feeling I am left with in reflecting on this novel is the effect of the mother and of the attempt by nearly all in this situation to act like her. The children prepare food and Esch’s thoughts often linger to nurturing thoughts, a sense that magnifies as her body begins to respond to the life she carries within it.

Although the mother is never present, her memory is held strong by Esch and fiercely through Skeetah, in his protection of China and her pups, Junior clammers for attention and affection, never having known her. They hold strong to how she made them feel and recognise that after the devastation, they can salvage what’s left and continue.

Medea is both the maiden and the mother, tender and vulnerable to love, fierce in her protection, loyal to her siblings and devastating in her revenge, she is the storm. She is the anti-thesis to the mother Esch remembers, but important for her survival, a warning against falling too far, while recognising how destabilising the emotions can be. Ward isn’t trying to recreate a version of Medea’s story, she uses it as reference, one that causes Esch to contemplate what is happening around her, even if it doesn’t always modify her behaviour, the emotions are too strong. Ultimately Medea will guide her.

As Esch, Randall and Junior walk through the debris after the hurricane has passed Esch picks up a piece of coloured glass, marbled blue and white and another that is red and a pink brick stone, remnants in the aftermath. Their friend Big Henry reminds her that he too will be there for them and it is a poignant moment for Esch, who squeezes the remnants tight in her hand:

“I will tie the glass and stone with string, hang the shards above my bed, so that they will flash in the dark and tell the story of Katrina, the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt-burned land. She left us to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.”

Though it took me a while to read it, this is a book that stays with you, that continues to work on the reader long after the water has receded. It is a lament to the lone motherless adolescent and her siblings, to the courage of victims of natures destructive forces, to the ability of survivors to regroup, find solidarity, to continue, to the destabilising highs and lows of young love. And to universal themes and heroines of the classics, the stories we turn to, that ask and answer life’s questions, challenge us, inspire us. I’m looking forward to reading her next book.

Have you read any of Jesmyn Ward’s works?

Man Booker Prize 2017 Winner #GeorgeSaunders

Yesterday the winner of the Man Booker 2017 was announced, and the prize went to:

Of the shortlisted titles, I’d only read one Exit West and I keep promising to finally read a book by Ali Smith,but that hasn’t happened yet. I was a little intrigued by Lincoln in the Bardo, but put off by the hype and an air of assuredness in the media of it winning; it was the British bookies favourite and although it is his first full length novel, he is an accomplished, bestselling author in the US.

Having listened to Baroness Young speak about how they came to their decision in this video, I am back in ‘intrigue’ mode and thinking, I really would like to know this one from the inside. It’s worth listening to the video, as she also mentions the obstacles some readers might encounter, an admirable admission, as not all award winning literary fiction is as accessible to the reader as one might imagine.

Comments below are extracted from the Man Booker website:

Lola, Baroness Young, 2017 Chair of judges, comments:

‘The form and style of this utterly original novel, reveals a witty, intelligent, and deeply moving narrative. This tale of the haunting and haunted souls in the afterlife of Abraham Lincoln’s young son paradoxically creates a vivid and lively evocation of the characters that populate this other world. Lincoln in the Bardo is both rooted in, and plays with history, and explores the meaning and experience of empathy.’

Lincoln in the Bardo focuses on a single night in the life of Abraham Lincoln: an actual moment in 1862 when the body of his 11-year-old son was laid to rest in a Washington cemetery.

Strangely and brilliantly, Saunders activates this graveyard with the spirits of its dead. The Independent described the novel as ‘completely beguiling’, praising Saunders for concocting a ‘narrative like no other: a magical, mystery tour of the bardo – the “intermediate” or transitional state between one’s death and one’s next birth, according to Tibetan Buddhism.’

Meanwhile, the Guardian wrote that, ‘the short story master’s first novel is a tale of great formal daring…[it] stands head and shoulders above most contemporary fiction, showing a writer who is expanding his universe outwards, and who clearly has many more pleasures to offer his readers.’

Saunders told TIME magazine that he didn’t really want to write about Lincoln,

‘but was so captivated by this story I’d heard years ago about him entering his son’s crypt. I thought of the book as a way of trying to instil the same reaction I’d had all those years ago.’

So have you read this novel, or if not, are you tempted by it? Did you have another favourite to win?

Man Booker Prize Shortlist 2017 Announced #ManBookerPrize

The shortlist was announced a few days ago so you may already be aware of which titles made the list below. It’s an interesting mix of established names and new and a nod towards stretching the boundaries of what a novel can be.

Of the titles I’d read from the longlist, Zadie Smith’s excellent novel Swing Time didn’t make the list and neither did Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, however Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West did.

It’s an interesting and unpredictable list, these six deemed to have met the criteria the judges required, making it through the rigorous debate that allows a diverse panel to agree on a final list. One of the judges had this to say:

“All of the six books are remarkable and mostly they are daring and I love what they do with literature. They are really trying to push the boundaries of what it means to be a novel and what the novel says about the world as it is today.”

The 2017 shortlist of six novels is:

Title Author (nationality) (imprint)

4321 by Paul Auster (US) (Faber & Faber)

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US) (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (UK-Pakistan) (Hamish Hamilton)

Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) (JM Originals)

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US) (Bloomsbury Publishing)

Autumn by Ali Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)

For an excellent and concise reaction to the short list from one of my favourite reviews and bloggers, Eric at Lonesome Reader had this to say about the list, changing his mind about who he predicts will win and tells us about an interview with a tree!

I think the book that I’m most interested to read and that appeals most to my reading inclinations would be Ali Smith’s Autumn, though I’m intrigued by Fiona Mozley’s book Elmet, she sounds like a promising young writer, one to watch for the future.

Eric initially predicted Lincoln in the Bardo to win it, but is now thinking Autumn could well be an alternate winner. What do you think?

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie #ManBookerPrize

I read Home Fire in two days, I thought it was brilliantly done, heartbreaking, tragic, essential. It’s been long listed for the Man Booker Prize 2017 and certainly makes my short list! I’m looking forward to reading more of the author’s back list.

Underpinning the novel is the premise of Sophocles’ 5thC BC play Antigone, an exploration of the conflict between those who affirm the individual’s human rights and those who must protect the state’s security.

Before reading Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, I downloaded a translation of Antigone to read, she acknowledges herself that Anne Carson’s translation of Antigone (Oberon Books, 2015) and The Burial at Thebes: A Version of Sophocles’ Antigone by Seamus Heaney were constant companions as she wrote, expressing gratitude too, for the children’s book version The Story of Antigone and its author Ali Smith.

In Ali Smith’s version there is a discussion at the end of the book about what stories are, which reads:

“Stories are a kind of nourishment. We do need them, and the fact that the story of Antigone, a story about a girl who wants to honour the body of her dead brother, and why she does, keeps being told suggests that we do need this story, that it might be one of the ways that we make life and death meaningful, that it might be a way to help us understand life and death, and that there’s something nourishing in it, even though it is full of terrible and difficult things, a very dark story full of sadness.”

Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is a contemporary retelling of the classic play, set in contemporary London. Even though I knew the premise of the story from having read the play, the story unfolded as if I had no prior knowledge of its likely outcome, it has its own unique surprises and insights, making it a compelling read.

We meet Isma, the eldest daughter of a family, who’ve been raised by their mother and grandmother, as she announces to her twin brother and sister Aneeka and Parvaiz that she is going to the US to complete her PhD studies that were put on pause after the death of their mother and grandmother within the space of a year, leaving her to become the mother to griefstruck twelve-year-old twins. She had briefly known her father, but the twins never.

The rigorous interrogation she is put through on leaving the UK reveal something in her family background that their entire family has tried to keep quiet, just wanting to move on with their lives, that their father had abandoned them and gone to fight as a jihadi in Afghanistan and had died en route to Guantanamo.

While in the US, Isma meets Eamonn, the son of a British politician she detests, setting in motion a litany of events that will have a catastrophic impact on both their families.

“Eamonn, that was his name. How they’d laughed in Wembley when the newspaper article accompanying the family picture revealed this detail, an Irish spelling to disguise a Muslim name – Ayman become Eamonn so that people would know the father had integrated.”

For Parvaiz, the only son, the lack of a father figure created a void, his grandmother had been the only family member willing to talk about him, but her stories were always of the boy, never of the man he became, a subject she was reluctant to be drawn into.

“He had always watched boys and their fathers with an avidity composed primarily of hunger. Whenever any of those fathers had made a certain gesture towards him – a hand placed on the back of his neck, the word ‘son’, an invitation to a football match – he’d retreat, both ashamed and afraid in a jumbled way that only grew more so as the years passed and the world of girls and boys grew more separate, so there were times he was not a twin to a twin but rather the only male in a house that knew all the secrets that women shared with on another but none that fathers taught their son.”

It’s a riveting, intense novel that propels the reader forward, even while something in us wants to resist what we can feel coming. It pits love against loyalty, family versus country, and cruelly displays how hard it is for families to distance themselves from the negative patterns of their ancestral past.

Kamila Shamsie was born in Karachi and now lives in London, a dual citizen of the UK and Pakistan. Her debut novel In The City by the Sea, written while still in college, was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in the UK and every novel since then has been highly acclaimed and shortlisted or won a literary prize, in 2013 she was included in the Granta list of 20 best young British writers.

Her novels are (linked to Goodreads):

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Click here to Purchase a copy of

Home Fire via Book Depository

Swing Time by Zadie Smith #ManBookerPrize

The original Swing Time is a film clip of Fred Astaire dancing on stage at a cabaret, with a giant screen behind him, in which three shadow versions of himself attempt to keep up with his energy, his footwork, his dance. In the end they give up and walk off leaving him alone to continue, enrapturing his audience.

In Zadie Smith’s opening to her Swing Time, the protagonist is sitting in London’s Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank of the Thames, having walked aimlessly from the apartment she’s been hiding out in, opposite Lord’s Cricket Ground in St John’s Wood into the city, crossed the river and spontaneously bought a ticket to an event.

During this “conversation with an Austrian film director” they show this clip, which she is very familiar with from her own childhood obsession, and watching it now, she realises how much she has been a shadow in the lives of others, never taking centre stage in her own life, despite the strong passion for music and dance she has had within her all along.

“I saw all my years at once, but they were not piled up on each other, experience after experience, building into something of substance – the opposite. A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.”

Structured in seven parts, from Early Days, Early and Late, Intermission, through Middle Passage, Night and Day, Day and Night to Late Days the novel shows the family life and friendship of the protagonist and her friend Tracey, two girls who take dance classes together when they are seven years old, who live on adjoining North London housing estates, with mothers who aspire for their children to have a different experience than their own and while some may judge them otherwise, they do the best they can to make that so.

“At this early stage Tracey and I were not friends or enemies or even acquaintances: we barely spoke. Yet there was always this mutual awareness, an invisible band strung between us, connecting us and preventing us from straying too deeply into relations with others.”

Tracey is outspoken, the more talented dancer and ambitious, she masks her curiosity and disappointments with malice, telling her friend, they had things “the wrong way around”.

“With everyone else it’s the dad” she says, and because I knew this to be more or less accurate I could think of nothing more to say. “When your dad’s white it means…” she continued, but at that moment Lily Bingham came and stood next to us and I never did learn what it meant when your Dad was white.

Jeni LeGon with Bojangles in a scene from the movie, Hooray for Love. [Merlin Archive]

Tracey’s dance ambitions take her to a special school where she can develop those skills, while her friend reluctantly follows the more academic route her mother has paved for her, ignoring her own passion for singing those old-time songs and the early days Fred Astaire and Jeni LeGon (see her in the video clip below) dance moves. She studies media and looks for admin jobs and for a short time is drawn back into Tracey’s world as a stagehand, when Tracey lands a role in a West End musical.

During her first media job, she has a chance encounter with an ambitious Australian pop star, who later requests her to work for her. The singer attempts to bring her out of her reservedness by taking her somewhere where she feels most herself, a bike ride to Hampstead Heath. Her life is thus viewed through the lens of a woman of extraordinary means, who has a certain kind of power to do and to have anything and anyone she wants, a life that is facilitated by those she employs to keep her from the untidy reality of real life.

It reminded me of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend in its premise of the female friendship, two girls who’ve known each other since childhood, who are simultaneously attracted and repelled by each other, who separate but never entirely sever their precarious connection, toxic yet familiar, fulfilling an unhealed need to be witnessed in their entirety.

The plot takes our narrator out of London to New York and into an African country where the singer wishes to make a difference to girls’ lives by opening a school. Sending her in advance and on numerous occasions, she sees and experiences aspects of life there at greater depth than her employer and becomes increasingly frustrated by what others fail to see, that which she is unable to adequately communicate.

It has not been her place to be forthright (a weakness that while it stayed that way served her well), however she can’t ignore it, especially not since her mother began to realise her own aspirations, rising up out of her situation, educating herself as an adult and becoming a local politician/activist with strong views on West African dictatorships and celebrities that adopt babies from poverty-stricken countries.

If London was unreal, if New York was unreal, they were powerful stage shows: as soon as we were back inside them they not only seemed real but the only possible reality, and decisions made about the village from these locations always appeared to have a certain plausibility while we were making them, and only later, when one or other of us arrived back here, and crossed this river, did the potential absurdity of whatever it was become clear.”

It’s a rich, exciting, thought-provoking novel, even if being the employee of a pop star may sound unreal. In effect, it is more about whether escaping one’s roots and elevating oneself in or associated with fame or success equates to a sense of fulfilment, or whether one is empowered by finding and following one’s passion. Our narrator is attracted to those who appear to her to be true to themselves, focused and unafraid to express it.

As she did with NW, Zadie Smith creates a strong sense of place and community, and through her choice of characters shares many poignant insights and realities of mothers and daughters and the effect the past exerts on the choices they make in the future.

I admit, I do love this novel all the more for having lived in North London for eight years, and in the latter years, in an estate in Kilburn, so I remember these streets and this community from a period in the late 1990’s that brings it alive more so than if it were set in a city I’d never lived in. It’s not necessary to know it, but if you do, it’s like the icing on the cake! I’ve read all Zadie Smith’s novels except The Autograph Man and I’d say now that Swing Time is my favourite. I hope to see it make the shortlist of the Man Booker Prize 2017.

Brilliantly executed, highly recommended.