Ahhh, my first Zadie Smith novel (and my first read of 2019!). Swing Time wasn’t my first exposure to Zadie, that was “The Waiter’s Wife” back in the spring for my British Literature class. Yet, everyone warned me not to start with Swing Time, that it was Smith’s worst novel, that it fell flat in comparison to something like White Teeth, but I was instantly taken by it and I knew I hadn’t made a mistake.
“I really felt that if I could dance like Tracey I would never want for anything else in this world. Other girls had rhythm in their limbs, some had it in their hips or their little backsides, but she had rhythm in individual ligaments, probably in individual cells.”
-Zadie Smith, Swing Time
From the back cover:
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, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.
Tracey makes it to the chorus line but struggles with adult life, while her friend leaves the old neighborhood behind. The story moves from London to West Africa, where diaspora tourists travel back in time to find their roots, 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 music of time.
Swing Time is carefully written; every word is deserving of its place on the page. Smith explores ideas involving race, sex, and class through the context of song and dance. Through the course of the novel, there are really two stories by told: the first of the unnamed narrator’s childhood with her best friend Tracey, and the second of the narrator’s adulthood working as an assistant to a Madonna-type pop star. The former I found to be especially engaging, though the latter could have used a serious edit. As a whole, the narrative alternates swiftly between the two timeliness, and the nonlinear structure is successful in reaching a gripping conclusion: a conclusion that is Dramatic with a capital D. The novel’s conclusion also brings the conclusion to the narrator’s friendship with Tracey, and in that sense Swing Time really comes full circle. It is very much a tale of friendship and fate, of womanhood and motherhood.
“The only thing I could see through my tinted window did not appear to surprise or alarm her, and when I made some reference to it in the few minutes we were together, standing on the gangway, watching our cars roll on to the spookily empty ferry and her children run delightedly up the cast-iron steps, to the upper deck, she turned to me and snapped: ‘Jesus Christ, if you’re gonna be shocked by every fucking sign of poverty you see here, this is going to be a mighty long trip. You’re in Africa!’ Just as if I’d asked why is was light outside and been told: ‘It’s daytime!'”
-Zadie Smith, Swing Time
As a former dancer with a similar inclination toward tap and ballet, I felt a special connection to Smith’s narrator, one that made me miss my leotard and tights. If Swing Time is Smith’s worst, consider me astonished, as I add the rest of her library to my to-read pile and eagerly run to the bookstore for a copy of White Teeth.
Further Reading: “Nameless and Undefined: On Zadie Smith’s Swing Time“ by Kaila Philo, The Millions; “Race, Gender, and Celebrity Meet on a Global Stage in Zadie Smith’s Bold New Novel” by Megan O’Grady, Vogue.
Find this book on Goodreads.