Swing Time by Zadie Smith
I’ve been hearing about Zadie Smith for some time now, and Swing Time in particular over the last few months. She’s one of England’s premier authors, and I’m not quite sure how she escaped my voracious high school book appetite. I’m elated to have finally found her. I was pleasantly suprised when my local library had it (I live in an ultra-white, ultra-suburban part of America currently), and I was able to put it on hold and pick it up all in the same day. The feel and look of the book in my hand put me back in the mindset of my middle and high school summers where I would spend an hour at the libary weekly, scouring the shelves for books to add to the stack that was too big for my arms to carry. It’s a big book, over 400 pages, and I was so excited to dig into a nice lengthy read for the first time in a long time.
As a dancer, I was so excited when I opened the cover, and read on the inside flap, “Two brown girls dream of being dancers…” I don’t read many books about brown girls who do what I do, and I looked forward to seeing how this story unfolded. One thing I especially loved was how Zadie Smith included so much dance history in the text — she reached back to the beginnings of tap dancing by the Irish and the Black slave boys who were forced to dance on harbors, tracing it to the start of Black hoofers in the early 1920s, to Cab Calloway and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and even delves into minstrelsy with Fred Astaire blacking up in the movie Swing Time. I didn’t learn about the Black roots of tap dancing until I was in college, and it was apparent that Smith did her work here. She also puts my two dual interests — choreography/performance and Black dance theory — into two discreet bodies. Tracey is the dancer with talent and her friend, the nameless narrator of the book, is the one who lacks talent but has all the ideas about dance and how it fits into the rest of the world.
I sat down to write this review, and suddenly realized that I didn’t know the narrator’s name. I flipped through the book, wondering if I had been careless in my reading, but no, she’s not named anywhere. This is such an interesting choice when you consider how much naming a thing (or person) defines it, grounds it, gives it finite feeling and limits. So much of the narrator is undefined, and we can only try to understand her motivations or her actions as we see how they impact the acutely defined people around her — Tracey, the narrator’s childhood friend, is boistrous, willful and deviant; Aimee is the mega popstar for whom the narrator finds herself working; and her mother is an Afro-Carribean feminist, scholar, activist and politician who’s influence has a profound impact on her daughter’s point of view — who are all named and given solid places in the text.
So much of this book is about identity and how growing up seems to be a life long process. Our narrator struggles with questions about her blackness as a biracial person of Jamaican heritage; she marvels at the similarities in her and Tracey’s complexions, but the complete difference in every other aspect of their lives. Even as she leaves her childhood neighborhood and takes off all over the world with Aimee, the narrator is often short sighted in how her actions affect others and in her perception of the world. She seems to lose herself in the world of working for Aimee, as her mother warned she would, and when things don’t turn out the way she wants them too, she makes brash, childish decisions. Despite that, I spent the whole time rooting for her; I genuinely wanted her to figure her life out… some therapy probably would have been extremely helpful for her.
Time itself is quite fluid throughout the novel as well. The author swings (hehe) back and forth between the narrators present and her past. In many ways, the trips back into the past seem to help provide a frame work in which to understand the present. Throughout, the narrator seems to be connecting her present day circumstances — her job, her love life (or lack thereof), her relationship with her mother — to her childhood relationship with Tracey. Really, the comparison she makes between the two of them starts from the very beginning of the text.
I read the final pages in a frenzy, hoping for a resolution that would help me understand our narrator just a bit more, and I was not to be rewarded. I think that Smith asks us to understand the meaning that lies just below the surface of the final scene, but I haven’t quite figured it out yet. Nonetheless, something about finishing a book feeling like I haven’t put together all the pieces is actually a satifying feeling for me. In a way, it seems like the book lives on beyond the final page, and I can parse out its meaning for myself. To me, the best books aren’t always the ones tied up in nice, pretty little bows for you.
I love this book because I deeply respect the work the author put into crafting the story. You should read it because it’s historical and sharp and asks you to look beyond the surface. It requires you to actually read.
Have you read Swing Time? Or any other of Zadie Smith’s work? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below!