Swing Time by Zadie Smith: A review
Two young girls growing up in poverty in North London in the '80s and '90s meet at a Saturday dance class. One of them has natural talent as a dancer. Both of them love music and rhythm.
They become friends and remain close, with only occasional adolescent fallings-out, through all the years of growing up, sharing a love of old musicals and of dancers like Fred Astaire and Bojangles. They watch those movies over and over again, learning and copying the moves of the dancers.
Swing Time is the story of those two girls as they make the passage through adolescence and into young adulthood and increased responsibilities. The girls grow apart, but their friendship will always be the major influence and touchstone of their lives.
The talented young dancer is Tracey, friend of the narrator of this book. The narrator is never given a name. Both girls are biracial; Tracey has a white mother and black (Jamaican) father and the narrator has a black (Jamaican) mother and a white father.
The narrator's family is intact, both parents present and caring. Her father is the primary caretaker of the home while her mother pursues her education and supports the causes about which she is passionate.
Tracey's family is a mess. Her father is not present in the household, at least not on a regular basis. He makes occasional visits and Tracey adores him and constructs an entire fantasy life for him as a back-up dancer for Michael Jackson. In her story, his being on constant tour with Michael is the reason he's never home. In truth, he is in and out of prison, plus he has a whole other family in another part of town. Her mother dotes on Tracey and is particularly proud of her dance talent. She sees it as the girl's ticket out of poverty.
Eventually, Tracey does get some professional dancing jobs, while the narrator goes on to college at her parents' insistence. In her early twenties, she goes to work for a company that seems modeled on MTV and there she comes to the attention of rock superstar Aimee.
Aimee hires her as a personal assistant and she spends the next nine years in Aimee's orbit, flying around the world on tour with her and easing her passage through life. When Aimee becomes obsessed with West Africa and wants to establish a school for girls there, the narrator spends a lot of time there with the villagers. She comes to admire them, but never really seems to understand them.
Much of this story, on its surface, seems torn from Entertainment Weekly headlines; the superstar superficially obsessed with Africa, building schools, adopting African children, etc. But Zadie Smith is only using that superstructure as a broad outline. She is interested in what lies beneath.
Smith writes brilliantly about modern culture and about female friendship, identity, and family. All of this medley is sifted through timeless themes of power and powerlessness, misunderstanding and crass manipulation of others, and the dichotomies between third world values and values of what we are pleased to call the "developed" world. It is a heady mix that makes for a huge and powerful novel.
Although she raises many issues in her narrative, Smith does not necessarily provide us with the answers. In the end, her narrator, not a particularly likable person, has to acknowledge, as the mother she has battled with lies dying, that even though she is in her early thirties she has not grown into a fully realized and admirable human being. Cut loose from her ties to Aimee, she is adrift in the world with little idea of where to find a mooring.
I loved this book. The story has such energy and is so deeply human. It reminds us once again that we can never truly grow away from our roots. Of course it helps that Zadie Smith is such a brilliant writer.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars