Two brown girls dream of being dancers – but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It’s a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.
Tracey wants to make it to the chorus line but struggles with adult life, while her friend leaves the old neighbourhood far behind, travelling the world as PA to famous singer, Aimee, observing close up how the one per cent live.
But when Aimee develops grand philanthropic ambitions, the story moves from London to West Africa, where diaspora tourists travel back in time to find their roots, young men risk their lives to escape into a different future, the women dance just like Tracey – the same twists, the same shakes – and the origins of a profound inequality are not a matter of distant history, but a present dance to the musical of time.
Swing Time was actually my first Zadie Smith novel. I studied her short story (which is actually pretty long) The Embassy of Cambodia for a class I took at university and always intended to delve further into her work but never got around to it for some reason. When I read her conversation with Lena Dunham in Lenny, I realised the time had come. I also had a gift card left over from Christmas perfect for buying myself a beautiful but painfully expensive hardback. So I went for it.
Swing Time is a novel consumed by questions of race, class, motherhood, success and female friendship. Smith explores these themes using the parallel experiences of the unnamed narrator and her childhood best friend, Tracey. Both girls grow up on the same London estate but go on to radically different adult lives. Tracey, the dancer, never leaves the estate and finishes the novel a single parent with mental health issues. The unnamed narrator on the other hand, after leaving the estate for university and becoming the personal assistant to world-famous musician Aimee and travelling the world with her, ends up publicly disgraced, unemployed and only a few miles from where she started.
Both women would probably regard the other as having the worse deal.
‘I saw all my years at once, but they were not piled up on each other, experience after experience, building into something of substance – the opposite. 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.’
One of the aspects of this novel that intrigued me the most was the way we imagine the lives of other people. The most obvious and in many ways most pressing example of this was Aimee’s mission to ‘help the children of Africa’, which she did with no regard to the political situation of Gambia (they were getting into bed with a regime that was not interested in the wellbeing of its people) or even the needs of the small community the school was built to serve (her school was for girls only – the incorrect assumption being the boys were already taken care of). The end result of the school was the village suffering even more financial hardship than before, as the government viewed it as being taken care of by Aimee’s foundation, and consequently removed the little financial aid it had in place. Aimee was doing nothing to break the cycle of poverty, but despite the narrator’s (frustratingly few) attempts to make her see the truth she remains stubbornly disinterested – consumed with Lamin, her Gambian lover, rather than the school that brought her to the country in the first place.
Even after witnessing this, the narrator is not immune from similarly grand fantasies. In the final chapters of Swing Time, when she’s finally back in London and confronted with Tracey’s fractured mental health and poor family, she imagines a world in which she adopts Tracey’s children as her own as if that were anything like a solution.
All of this imagined good is contrasted with snippets into the life of the narrator’s mother. The narrator holds a great deal of resentment toward her mother, who spent her childhood buried in books rather than taking her daughter to dance class. What it resulted in, though, was an adult life as a crucial pillar of the community, a member of parliament who spent her career communicating with her people and working to make life better for them based on their requests rather than some imagined scenario. Our impression of the narrator’s mother is so consumed by her resentment toward her that it’s difficult to see her work for what it is, but when you peek around all that anger and resentment she is revealed as the most active character in the novel.
While I enjoyed most of the story, Swing Time was difficult for me in places. What the narrator says of herself at the beginning, about attaching herself to the light of others rather than creating her own proves true, resulting in what is at times a main character who is oddly disengaged from the events of her life. She doesn’t seem to really seek deep feeling and cuts those who produce it from her – mostly her mother and Tracey, although also latterly her father – from her life. There are some moments of great sadness in the novel that are glossed over, as if she is somehow numb to them, or has perhaps numbed herself deliberately. The effect of this on me was to make it difficult to feel as I wanted for her, and her experiences. There were parts of the book that left me a little flat, which frustrated me.
Overall though, Swing Time is a rich and interesting novel, and one that despite my issues with it, I can see myself returning to in the future.