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Dancing in borrowed clothes

Zadie Smith returns to home turf in her most mature novel yet, says

Swing Time

by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99)

VS Naipaul knows how hard it is to write fiction in the wake of an early success. His buoyant masterpiece A House for Mr Biswas (1961), drawing on his childhood in Trinidad, came out while he was still in his twenties. The later novels—whatever their virtues— never recaptured that initial comic exuberance. In 2008 Naipaul was asked whether he sympathised with an author in a similar predicament. Zadie Smith’s first novel White Teeth (2000), set in the multicultural northwest London in which she grew up, brimmed with optimism. It was a bestseller that turned her into a literary celebrity at 25. “The problem for someone like that,” said Naipaul of Smith, “is where do you go, how do you move? If you’ve consumed your material in your first book, what do you do? All those stages are full of anguish.”

Smith has a complex—even anguished— relationship with the book that made her name. Nowadays she can’t read White Teeth without, in her own words, being “overwhelmed with nausea.” She needn’t be so repulsed. Smith’s debut was a joyfully assured performance full of jokes (some good, some corny), and propelled by her impressive way with dialogue. It was also, as she is now quick to acknowledge, cartoonish, irritatingly smart-aleck and structurally a bit of a mess, groaning under the influence of Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis. Over the last 16 years, Smith has mused in essays and lectures over how to sharpen her gifts and develop her insights. As she ruefully admitted in the foreword to her 2009 essay collection Changing My Mind, “When you are first published at a young age, your writing grows with you—in public.”

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s November issue: Sam Tanenhaus argues Donald Trump is a consequence of the American government ignoring the people—and they’ll have to deal with his impact whether he wins or loses the presidential election. Diane Roberts explores the rage eating America by looking at the people that government has failed. Switching the focus to the UK, David Marquand and a quartet of commentators assess Labour’s position—with varying conclusions. Also in this issue: Matthew Qvortrup looks at the relationship between Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, two of Europe’s most important politicians whose lives have long been intertwined. Andy Burnham, Labour’s candidate for the mayor of Manchester, lays down the reasons why the northern powerhouse is so important and Prospect’s Arts and Books Editor Sameer Rahim reviews Zadie Smith’s latest novel.