A review of Zadie Smith’s novel, Swing Time
Swing Time, the fifth novel from Zadie Smith, is a novel about little girls and the women they become; it’s about racial and class divides, but more importantly, friendship. Smith tackles big, complicated themes in this work – it’s a sprawling novel, taking place over the course of two and a half decades (beginning in the early 80s and ending in the late oughts) and 400-plus pages. The novel begins with the story of two best girlfriends, both of whom are seven-years-old; the narrator – who remains unnamed – and Tracey, a dance prodigy. They take dance classes together, but the narrator never excels the way Tracey does; she has passion for the art, but no real talent. The narrator is a biracial girl living in Northwest London in public housing, the daughter of a white father and a Jamaican mother. Her mother is an Angela Davis-type intellectual, feminist and activist who wears her hair in an afro; politically involved and a bookworm, she is constantly striving for a better life: One of intellectual importance and social significance.
Tracey has a little turned-up nose, impressive long curls and is also biracial. Her father is black, and a backup dancer for Michael Jackson, but he is explosive and violent; he and Tracey’s mother, a white woman, are no longer together and he is usually not in the picture at all, except when he drops into town to visit and smash up his family’s flat, also part of the housing projects in Northwest London. Her mother is quiet, less ambitious and not as sophisticated as our narrator’s mother. She allows Tracey to eat sweets and junk food (Angel Delight is one of her favorite treats) and play with Barbie dolls - two things disallowed at the narrator’s home, as her mother associates the love of dolls with the acceptance of female oppression and the prison of domesticity. Tracey is also allowed to watch television and wear trendy, frilly clothes: more fun activities of which our narrator is deprived. One of their favorite pastimes, other than dressing “the little white woman” (Barbie) in many different fabulous outfits and driving her around in her plastic convertible is watching and re-watching – and then imitating – complicated dance routines, some of their favorites being in Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers 1936 film, Swing Time: the novel’s namesake.
Their childhood, however, is not all Angel Delight and tap dancing: A particularly disconcerting passage early in the novel details the commonplace “games” of sexual harassment at the girls’ school, although they are never referred to as such. It’s a chase: A power struggle between the sexes. Being touched in a sexually inappropriate manner is a badge of honor for the school girls; it signifies desire by the opposite sex as well as popularity.
The girls are deeply connected as friends despite their significant differences in family life and upbringing; they are two of few biracial girls in their school, they both live in city housing and share a love of dance, yet Tracey’s household is broken and her mother is not an intellectual nor is she politically involved. Our narrator’s father is just as different from Tracey’s father as the mothers are from one another: He is a milquetoast, while Tracey’s father is volatile and dangerous.
After college, while working at a music television network resembling MTV, the narrator meets one of her childhood idols: An incredibly wealthy, world-famous pop music star named Aimee, a Madonna-esque singer and dancer, blonde and tiny with a washboard stomach. She soon becomes Aimee’s personal assistant; at first it is a dream come true, but soon her role turns into an all-encompassing life sentence instead of a job. She gives up her own personal and romantic life to tend of the needs of a rich white woman – similar to the Barbie doll games she played as a child, but without as much of the fun and frivolity.
Apart from being a pop star, Aimee uses her level of extreme fame and wealth to open a school for girls in a rural area of an unnamed West African country and also adopts a little girl from the region, adding a third member to her family of two biological children - each of whom were fathered by a different man; love relationships are not her strong suit.
Tracey’s fate is similar to that of her own mother: As an adult she finds herself a single mother living in the housing projects where she grew up; sadly, her natural talent for dancing did not translate into a long-lasting career. As for our narrator, all of the things she thought would make her happy failed her. A scandal of her own creation gets her canned as Aimee’s life/career manager and she discovers that her beloved mother (now divorced from her husband) is in the final stages of spinal cancer.
Smith employs the use of first-person narration in this novel, a first for her, and it is written in such a way that we feel we are reading the narrator’s private journal. Love and romance do not bode well in this novel, but interpersonal relationships are what Smith knows and writes about best, specifically friendships, and the intimacy and ease we feel with the narrator is what makes this work so special. She is like one of our own close friends too, even if we don’t always particularly like her.