Terpsichore, the muse of dance, inhabits Zadie Smith’s kinetic Swing Time (Penguin Press, $27), a novel that launches and lands passages engaging the complexities of racial identity, class privilege, and the psychic half-life of adolescence. Swing Time revolves around a nameless protagonist/narrator and her childhood friend Tracey—both of whom are bi-racial brown girls, of similar means, who share a burgeoning love of dance’s varied forms. These bonds, however, also mark the fault lines of their simpatico sisterhood, which reverberate into other familial and professional relationships, especially the out-of-synch dynamic between the apolitical narrator and her activist mother. With uncanny rhythm, Smith spins the narrative out, back, and through the three decades of the ‘80s, ‘90s, and ’00s, tumbling temporal order and spanning the continents of Europe, America, and Africa. Swing Time also has an intertextual link to several musical routines; Ali Baba Goes to Town, featuring Jeni LeGon, Thriller and Smooth Criminal featuring Michael Jackson, and of course Swing Time, featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, all help drive the plot. Smith’s dance-inspired fiction is a remarkable feat of grace, technique, and verve.
In her outstanding fourth novel, Sabina Murray delivers a charged swathe of the past, studded with nuanced portraits and gorgeous nature writing. The eponymous Valiant Gentlemen (Grove, $27) are the Irish revolutionary Roger Casement (1864-1916) and the British sculptor Herbert Ward (1863-1919). Murray chronicles their thirty-year friendship from their meeting in the Congo in 1884 to its rupture just before Casement was executed by the British for treason. In between, Murray brings these complex, talented, and passionate men vividly to life—as she does with their families, colleagues, servants, and everyone else they encounter, a cast including Joseph Conrad, King Leopold, and Rodin. Following the protagonists from their youthful colonial adventures and budding artistic ambitions through Ward’s rise to upper-class family life and Casement’s lifelong wandering, poverty, and temporary attachments to men, Murray dramatizes many ongoing moral and socio-economic issues. Her characters’ dialogue crackles with wit and intelligence, conveying both their own perspectives on events and Murray’s insights into these figures as she traces the effects of colonialism’s callous arrogance and the blind assumptions of entrenched racism, sexism, and class discriminations. She sums up the historical abstractions in sharp, unforgettable images, from Africa’s “grass that hisses when the breeze stirs” and “the heart-chug of the steamer” on a river to the quaint Irish scene of “a donkey—picturesque with its basket and emaciated child.”
The author of this important and timely book grew up in Forsyth County, Georgia, an island of white supremacy for almost a century that remained untouched by the civil rights movement. How that happened is a powerful, complicated, and horrifying story of racial cleansing that writer and poet Patrick Phillips tells as a white man seeking the truth about his own roots. Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America (W.W. Norton, $26.95) examines in vivid and often lyrical detail the events that led to the forcible and violent expulsion of virtually all black people in the county in 1912—many of whom had lived and worked there for generations—and the decades of exclusion that followed. Change finally came to Forsyth with the 21st century, but even today the legacy of racial cleansing simmers beneath the surface. Courageous, beautifully written, and rich in its detailed reporting, Phillips records a genuine but depressing slice of American history whose repercussions continue to be felt in our country today.