Swing Time by Zadie Smith
Published November 15, 2016
I finished Swing Time, my first ever read by Zadie Smith, a few weeks ago. Since then the prospect of writing a review has loomed over me, not because the book was bad (it wasn’t) or because I don’t want to write a review (I do), but because Swing Time features such a rich tapestry of themes that I could write essays about it and still have more to say. How to sum up a book like this in a short review?
I chose to read Swing Time as my first Zadie Smith book largely because it’s a book about dance and the history of dance, a topic I’m interested in, but with the added boon of diverse characters. The book begins with our unnamed narrator and Tracy, both mixed-race girls with one black parent and one white parent, who meet in a community dance class in the 1980s and dream of becoming dancers one day. But while the narrator loves to dance, she doesn’t have Tracy’s natural talent. The girls have a close but complicated friendship that lasts into their twenties and ends abruptly. These memories of childhood and adolescence are set against the narrator’s memories of her more recent past, as a personal assistant to Madonna-type international pop star Aimee.
Swing Time has a certain cinematic scale to it, alternating between chapters set in the poor London neighborhood where Tracy and the narrator grow up, the glitz of New York City in the narrator’s life as a personal assistant, and West Africa, where pop star Aimee has decided to build a school for girls.
Ideas of privilege and cultural appropriation, are explored through the West Africa chapters, as would-be humanitarian Aimee sets upon the idea of building a school for girls, but the endeavor is naive and she doesn’t always think practically about what would work best for the villagers, needing to be talked out of installing technology for every student, for example. “To Aimee,” the narrator explains, “poverty was one of the world’s sloppy errors, one among many, which might be easily corrected if only people would bring to the problem the focus she brought to everything.” Used to not being denied, Aimee also begins a relationship with a younger local man, and uses her influence to rush through the adoption of an African baby, a move that horrifies the narrator.
The themes of race and class are, of course, featured heavily. the narrator is drawn to Tracy, saying that even before they had spoken to one another, they were always aware of each other as the only two black girls in the dance class. She remembers, “Our shade of brown was exactly the same, as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both. . . . Tracey and I lined up next to each other, every time, it was almost unconscious, two iron filings drawn to a magnet.” But while they are both poor, living in public housing, and black, there are differences in their home lives. Tracy’s father is absent, in and out of jail, and her white mother indulges Tracy’s every whim. In contrast, the narrator’s parents are married and her white father is kind but unambitious, while her Jamaican-born mother has political aspirations and is desperate to better herself.
Dance certainly runs through the novel (which takes its name from the Fred Astaire movie), from Tracy and the narrator’s initial dance classes, to the sexually-charged dance they perform as pre-teens to Aimee’s music, and then to Tracy as an adult performing in the chorus lines on the West End and the narrator’s experiences watching dances in the West African village. The narrator believes that the language of dance is universal, remembering a story of Fred Astaire begging Michael Jackson to teach him to moonwalk, but more than once she is so enraptured by the quality and showmanship of the dancing that she fails to see what’s right in front of her, the leads performing in blackface.
In the prologue, the narrator, who has been holed up in a condo after being fired from her job, leaves the condo to attend a lecture and thinks, “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.” Indeed, the fittingly unnamed narrator spends her life existing in the shadow of women with stronger personalities. She is a sort of moon left to orbit these women, first her mother, who yearns to rise above her class and constantly educates herself to achieve a higher standing, then Tracy, and finally Aimee. The narrator puts her life on hold for these women, choosing not to hang out with other friends when her and Tracy are together, and not maintaining friendships outside of work at all while she is Aimee’s assistant.
These are women who work to reinvent themselves and shape their own image. Her mother constantly reads and takes courses and attends parent-teacher days when the other parents don’t in order to be viewed differently, and achieves her goals when she is elected to the House of Commons as an MP. Aimee is an Australian who becomes a global pop star, and reinvents her image, borrowing from ideas and cultures, from the sexual 80s star to the humanitarian with staying power. Tracy changes her name and straightens her hair when she joins the cast of a West End show.
The narrator almost seems unable to change because she never has a firm grasp on what her identity is. She initially locks onto Tracy as the other mixed-race girl, but when Tracy moves to a performing arts school, the narrator continues to search for identity, dressing like and joining the goths in school. It is telling that the narrator talks about the idea of fitting in and finding your people as “finding her tribe”. While her mother, and Tracy for a time, and Aimee, all find a place where they fit, the narrator never does seem to belong. This culminates in a scene where her and Aimee are asked separately to dance and the narrator’s longtime friend from the village tells the narrator she’s very good, and that she doesn’t dance like a white girl, emphasizing that the narrator doesn’t belong in Africa either.
I found the Aimee chapters generally less interesting than the chapters that focus on the narrator’s childhood and adolescence with Tracy, but the book as a whole is worth reading and offers some really interesting insights. I was particularly taken with the exploration of identity, and I liked that the ending is somewhat open-ended. I would definitely pick up another Zadie Smith book in the future, and recommend this one to anyone interested in a rich exploration of race, class, privilege, and identity.