Title: Swing Time
Author: Zadie Smith
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link
It’s hard to be impartial about an author you love. I preordered Swing Time once it was available and have been putting off reviewing it largely because I felt I needed time to digest it. In my opinion, Zadie Smith is one of the best modern authors. I loved White Teeth and On Beauty and NW. Swing Time is different, in tone and style. It doesn’t have the sly humor of White Teeth or the literary homage of On Beauty. Instead, it’s a meditation on music and dance and how to deal with one’s past, one’s own and the past of one’s ancestors.
The first thing that struck me about Swing Time was the difference in point-of-view. Smith’s other novels have a detached third-person perspective, but Swing Time is told in the first-person by an unnamed narrator. The narrator is a bit bland, particularly when compared to all of the other women populating this novel. She forms a sense of self through those around her, always looking up to them, not thinking she can equal them, and her realization of that is heart-breaking.
“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.”
This is a novel about relationships between women. There’s a very minor romantic subplot, but that never seemed to matter, never seemed like the point. Instead, Swing Time is divided between the two main relationships in the narrator’s life: her childhood friendship with Tracey and her all-consuming job as assistant to an international pop star named Aimee. Also figuring into her life is her unnamed mother, a strong, self-educated woman, an aspiring politician, whom the narrator does not want to be like.
It begins with the story of Tracey and the narrator. They live on an estate in London and both take dance classes. Tracey is a natural talent. The narrator has flat feet, but persists in dancing, taking an interest in the history of dance and focusing on her ability to sing. They usually do what Tracey wants them to do. They play with Barbie, getting “that tiny white woman’s life in order.” They bond over their similar background and skin color: the narrator has a Black mother and White father, Tracey a White mother and Black father. As Tracey and the narrator grow older, they grow apart. Tracey gets the narrator a job backstage at a theatre, but the narrator leaves once she receives an opportunity to work for an MTV-like company. It is there that the narrator meets Aimee.
The narrator idolized Aimee as a child, so when she hears that she will be escorting Aimee around the studio, she puts on an act. Aimee’s favorite color is green, so she buys a green outfit and adds a nose-ring to give her look an edge. But Aimee sees straight through her. Aimee pulls out the fake nose-ring and says, “Don’t believe you.” That’s the narrator’s life summed up in one neat phrase; she tries to be something she’s not, and no one around her buys it anyway. The narrator thinks the whole thing went badly, but a few months later, Aimee’s people call her and offer her a job.
Aimee is repeatedly described as a tiny, white woman, and so it felt like a throw-back to the narrator’s youth that, as an adult, her literal job is getting Aimee’s life in order. She spends all of her time working and being on the look-out for people Aimee calls customers, those who only want to get close to the narrator in order to meet Aimee. From that point, the narrator’s life seems to revolve around Aimee. When Aimee plans for a school in Africa, the narrator spends months at a time there. The Africa subplot offers more things to think about: what right Aimee has to appropriate the culture of others, the problems with dealing with a despotic government to do good, and how involved Aimee would actually be with the school. Good for immediate publicity, the school not seem to interest Aimee after a few months.
There’s so much going on with this novel that it is hard to summarize succinctly. Even a few months removed from reading it, I feel overwhelmed by all of the themes and issues the book raises. Most of the reviews I read cry against the narrator, say how much they disliked her, but I felt for her. Throughout the novel, she is on a journey to self-discovery, and by the end, it seems like she might have reached a point where she will have the time and maturity to finally find a sense of self. The narrator told us a story where she is a shadow. And, just as the book is ending, there is hope for something more for her.
This is the type of book that, while grappling with serious issues, still manages to be excellent entertainment. I feel like this is the sort of book that would hold up well to re-readings, finding something new to think about each time. Overall, I highly recommend it.