Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

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Swing Time
by Zadie Smith
Two brown girls from North London council estates want to be dancers. In the same dance class, the same shade of nut-brown, they are "two iron filings drawn to a magnet," friends before they speak. One, Tracey, is a natural dancer: intuitive, genius, even. The other, the narrator of Swing Time, is talented in another direction: She is an observer, a wallflower given structure by stronger, surer women around her. Unnamed, unsure, neither black nor white, the narrator is fittingly indistinct in this brilliant novel about the illusions of identity.

As the two grow older, their lives diverge. The narrator goes to university and becomes an assistant to a pop star, living a detached life on planes and in rented townhouses. Tracey, after a few gigs as a dancer, fades back into the poverty she came from. And the narrator comes to feel that she has been the "sole witness" to Tracey's brilliance – expressed in movement and attention and wit and intuition and contempt for pretence. Does she owe Tracey something for leaving her behind, for dating nice boys, going to college, changing her voice? Tracey seems to think so: In her eyes, the narrator sees the question "Who are you pretending to be?"

Swing Time breaks the idea that we can ever come to a concrete identity, or reach the safe plains of self-knowledge. Identity is rather an exchange between people, a shifting topography, where the ground can collapse at any moment.
Only the narrator's white pop star employer, Aimee, seems to be able to really be whoever she wants, all at once. Rich and white, for her, differences are "never structural or economic but always essentially differences of personality." She never meets Tracey, who shares her talents but not her luck. If only other people had her willpower, her determination, and her certainty, Aimee thinks, no problem couldn't be solved. She decides to apply this to poverty in a small West African nation (unnamed), and pours money (ineffectively) into the village, taking African dance moves, an African lover, and an adopted African baby back in exchange.

Aimee's other foil is the narrator's queenly, righteous, and self-taught mother, a Jamaican "Nefertiti" with socialist politics and middle class aesthetics. She sees people structurally and sociologically rather than personally, defined by culture and color. When her mother talks about "our people," the narrator hears the quacking of ducks, repeating again and again "I am a duck! I am a duck!"
The women of Swing Time are case studies in the different ways people hunt for an identity. In London, the narrator is treated like a "moral fig-leaf" by her white colleagues. When she accompanies Aimee to West Africa, she imagines she might find an emotional home there with her "extended tribe, with my fellow black women." But "Here there was no such category. There were only the Sere women, the Wolof, and the Mandinka, the Serahuli, the Fula, and the Jola ..." The narrator is just another naïve Westerner, in wrinkled linen pseudo-safari garb, who thinks of Africa as a monolith. In a final insult, she realizes that all of her African friends think she is actually white: "Even though you are a white girl, you dance like you are a black!" they compliment her. Thus Smith shows how identity warps and collapses – the narrator's sense of herself as a part of a global sisterhood can't stand up to meeting those sisters.

When the narrator is enveloped in an Aimee-related scandal, Tracey leaks a humiliating video the two of them made in childhood to the press. She sends it to the narrator with a note reading, "Now everyone knows who you really are." Tracey means her note to be cruel, but it's also a promise: Through all the vagaries of identity and time, someone might still know who you really are.

With Swing Time, Zadie Smith identifies the impossible contradiction all adults are asked to maintain — be true to yourself, and still contain multitudes; be proud of your heritage, but don't be defined by it. She frays the cords that keep us tied to our ideas of who we are, to our careful self-mythologies. Some writers name, organize, and contain; Smith lets contradictions bloom, in all their frightening, uneasy splendor.



  • Wow. This huge, powerful novel is so minutely observed that readers can be forgiven for occasionally missing the forest for the trees. 
Sex, race, and class are backdrop here, setting and makeup for half-a-life of self-abnegation performed on a world stage. Dichotomies between first world/third world value sets, the insular self-preserving life of huge celebrities, the influence of money on impulses of every kind, the debts we owe another, how generosity manifests, who “family” really is— these life-critical issues are part of Zadie Smith’s latest novel. It bowled me over.

The story begins with two young girls, both fascinated with musical theatre and dance, as closely entwined as stems from the same seed, growing apart as they grew up together, the result of outsized talent and personality on one side, and a confusion of identities and timidity on the other. One takes a job dancing on stage, the other handmaiden to a dancer on a bigger stage. The confusion of identities is not challenged for years, during which time the handmaiden begins to observe cracks in the world she sought to manage.

She is nameless, the narrator. By dint of parental steering, she finished university and managed to find her way into managing logistics for a superstar, a singer/dancer. Descriptions of her work grow less enthralled as she ages out of the job ten years on, after discovering along the way that she may have been hired or kept on because she was a “woman of color” and filled a slot rather than for any perceived talent. In fact, the one time she does display an actual talent—for singing—her boss threatened to fire her.

Looking at a changed world without the prism supplied by the superstar, she realizes there is little she can take away from that time. The lessons she learned may not be ones she wants to keep, and she is not sure if she knows how to speak to a person dying, or how to be friends, or how to care, or how to make people around her feel benefit from her success.

Smith raises many issues in this novel but doesn’t solve many of them for us. The thing she does do so beautifully is poke a mixed London heritage and point to those little moments we recognize: anguish over unequal opportunity disguised as childish jealousy (Tracey); admiration for someone's ability to draw people into their orbit with generosity and joy (Hiwot in West Africa, her mother in London); how to be just who you are without designators like age or race or education or accomplishments (her father, James & Darryl in NYC).

The narrator is a shadow yet, in the beginning and at end of the novel, by her own admission, and not grown into her own persona. But we are there the moments she begins to see, to recognize who she is, what she believes, and what she has missed.

    “Now everyone knows who you really are.”

We do, and we feel so many other things as well. She is vulnerable, but suddenly able to see, hear, think, feel. She is in danger, but instead of being frightened, she feels a tingle…that’s blood rushing. Why does it take so long for humans to develop their sense? She is on her way, and she’ll do fine. The last thing her mother says to her is that she would make a good mother. And she would. But so will many others, even those who look incapable of it. Even Tracey. Even Aimee. Even her. She did learn something about love after all.

    “The future is the same as the past.”

What did Lamman mean when he said this to Fern? Perhaps he meant our future is in our past, or the future is created from the past or the past determines the future.

I listened to this novel, published by Penguin Random House Audio and read by Pippa Bennett-Warner. Bennett-Warner was amazing. She made a plethora of accents perfectly distinguishable, at least five London accents alone, two Australian, Jamaican, West African, along with NYC and generic American, male and female. That’s pretty grand, no matter how you cut it. I took my time over this, did not mark my place as I listened, so often listened twice to any section to catch up to my last heard scene. I was never bored. Smith packed so much seeing in each scene, I was thinking the entire time. Impressive in every way, and tons to talk about if readers choose this for a reading group. Which I recommend.
  • Madonna? Beyoncé? Angelina Jolie?

Which pop star inspired Zadie Smith to create the celebrity who bends the universe to her will in “Swing Time”?

But that’s hardly the most interesting question raised by this thoughtful new novel, which moves across the years and oceans — from London and New York to West Africa. This is a story at once intimate and global, as much about childhood friendship as international aid, as fascinated by the fate of an unemployed single mother as it is by the omnipotence of a world-class singer.

Smith, who rocked the literary establishment while still in college with a partial manuscript for “White Teeth,” opens her fifth novel to the toe-tapping tunes of Fred Astaire’s 1936 musical comedy “Swing Time.” But a darker bass line thrums beneath that happy melody. In the prologue, the narrator, a young woman recently fired from her job, seeks solace by Googling an old video clip of Astaire performing “Bojangles of Harlem” — and quickly discovers that. . . .

  • This is a great novel and I think one of the strongest (if not the strongest) of Zadie Smith’s already impressive body of work.

The story works on many levels and takes in multifarious themes, which although are generally familiar territory for Zadie Smith, are approached in what feels like a very focussed, new and intelligent way.

There is so much in this novel, it is difficult to know where to start, challenging to encapsulate – but in an attempt to try and convey… This is a story of friendship, family, betrayal, ambition, life and death, race and racial politics, power, class and gender; but it is much more than that – questions are suggested concerning – what is success, what is privilege – what is it and what does it actually mean to any of us?

The story moves from North London, to the USA to Africa and raises questions about belonging….not just geographical or racial belonging, but family belonging, friendship and community belonging…

The story tracks through the 1980’s and 90’s and whilst very evocative (particularly of London) successfully avoids the usual clichés of lazy nostalgia.
Concerning the power of celebrity, think Madonna, Shakira, Angelina Jolie, Oprah Winfrey et al. But this is no polemic or diatribe – instead as with all great books, questions are raised, thoughts are provoked and judgements are not made.

You very much feel as though you have been on a journey – I think that’s possibly the best way to describe this novel. It’s a very satisfying, compelling, thought provoking, challenging, emotionally engaging and memorable journey – of great reality, humanity, meaning and authenticity

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