In Review: Swing Time

Race, class, and dancing take center stage in Zadie Smith’s new novel.

Zadie Smith

When Zadie Smith announces the publication of a new book, the world takes notice. At 24, she made her debut with White Teeth (2000), which went on to win the Guardian First Book Award and catapult her to fame. Now, in her first novel since NW (2012), Smith brings us a story she’s described as concerned with “tap dancing, blackness, and time.”

Of course, that’s just the tip of the tap shoe: The novel opens with a prologue in which an unnamed narrator deals with a recent job loss, then quickly jumps back 24 years to 1982 when she meets Tracey at a dance class in North West London. “There were many other girls present but for obvious reasons we noticed each other, the similarities and the differences, as girls will. Our shade of brown was exactly the same—as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both….”

Although the girls live in the same public housing project, their home lives couldn’t be more different. Tracey has a white mother and a black father in prison, whereas the narrator has a white father and a black mother who is a feminist and intellectual, and ultimately checked out at home. And while they initially bond over their love of dance, it also serves to drive a wedge between them and highlight their differences.

As the narrator’s mother observes, “…[Tracey’s] been raised in a certain way, and the present is all she has. You’ve been raised in another way—don’t forget that. That silly dance class is her whole world. …But you’re clever. Doesn’t matter if you’ve got flat feet, doesn’t matter, because you’re clever and you know where you came from and where you’re going.”

Zadie Smith Swing Time

Smith’s latest novel is published by Penguin Press.

Throughout her 20s, Tracey continues her struggle to have a life on stage, while the narrator works as a personal assistant to Aimee, an Australian pop star with a larger-than-life presence. “She put her faith instead in the power of her own decisions, and these she made with her ‘heart.’ Often these decisions were sudden, and were never changed or rescinded once she’d made them, for she believed in her own good timing, in timing itself, as a mystical force, a form of fate, operating at the global and cosmic level as much as at the personal.”

Ironically, the narrator seems to live the sort of existence she always craved as a child—much like a dancer, she’s constantly traveling, rarely sees her parents, and loses touch with everyone from back home. In an interesting twist—though not surprising given Smith’s interest in pop culture, race, and class—at one point Aimee sets in motion the construction of a girls’ school in an unnamed Muslim West African country, and, as might be expected, things fall apart.

Before releasing Swing Time in November, Smith published “Two Men Arrive in a Village” in The New Yorker, looking at what happens when two strangers go into a close-knit community. In an interview with the magazine, she discussed the similarities of that story and what happens in Swing Time:

“There is a geographical connection: the village we glimpse in [‘Two Men Arrive in a Village’] looms larger in Swing Time.” But the obvious connection in my mind is that both the novel and the story are about imbalances of power. What happens when the weak meet the strong without protection.”

Once Aimee and her crew arrive in the village, the novel toggles between that world and London, showing the stark contrast of each world and how little each belongs to the other.

Zadie Smith Performing

Smith reads excerpts from Swing Time outside a Paris coffee shop.

When the narrator’s mother gets involved, things get more complicated, but she also points out the gaping truth of the matter, “Poverty is not just a headline, my love, it’s a lived reality, on the ground—and education is at the heart of it.”

As adults, the narrator and Tracey come in and out of each others’ lives, but Tracey always remains an important piece. When the narrator goes to visit her sick mother towards the end of the book she says, “The last time I saw my mother alive we talked about Tracey. That isn’t strong enough: Tracey was really the only thing that allowed us to speak at all.”

Swing Time is a mediation on the beauty and struggle of dance, class, and race, but also of navigating the waters from childhood to adulthood, keeping family and friends close, or knowing when to let go. And knowing, also, that while some people can’t exist in the same space, they’re always present, facilitating some sort of movement.

[©Image 1 courtesy of Dominique Nabokov, Image 3 courtesy of Egelsi/Alamy Stock Photo]

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