‘Swing Time’ by Zadie Smith – #20 Books of Summer

My experience of Zadie Smith’s writing has been extreme. When the world went crazy for her debut, White Teeth (2000), I just didn’t feel the love, but I was persuaded to give Smith another chance when On Beauty (2005) was chosen by my book group. If I had loathed White Teeth, I was in raptures about On Beauty, as such an accomplished important and beautifully written novel I had not read in a very long time.

I’ve not read Smith since, partly not wanting to spoil the adulation I felt for On Beauty, but when the bright canary yellow cover of Swing Time smacked me between the eyes in the library, it was hard to ignore.

The novel starts with the friendship of two girls, the narrator, and Tracey, whose friendship is borne out of their shared love of dance. The girls also gravitate towards each other because when they first meet at Miss Isabel’s dance class on that Saturday morning, unlike the other girls, they share another similarity, brown skin.

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 – and our freckles gathered in the same areas, we were of the same height.

However, the girls’ backgrounds were very different.

My mother was a feminist. She wore her hair in a half-inch afro, her skull was perfectly shaped, she never wore make-up and dressed us both as plainly as possible…. and in this way her financial circumstances, her politics and her aesthetic were all perfectly – conveniently – matched…. Looking across at Tracey I diagnosed the opposite problem: her mother was white, obese, afflicted with acne. She wore her thin blond hair pulled back very tightly in what I knew my mother would call a ‘Kilburn facelift’.

While both families live on the same estate, they differ in aspiration. While Tracey’s mother reapplies for disability benefit, the sole aim of her friend’s Mum is to ‘get out of here’ through her study and hard work.

swing time

As the girls grow up, their friendship wanes, only crossing at times later in life. We follow our narrator as she becomes a personal assistant to an Australian mega-star, Aimee, who rose to stardom from humble beginnings. Aimee’s burgeoning interest in philanthropic work takes the narrator to Gambia in West Africa* where she sees first hand the stark contrast between wealth and poverty, the intoxication that aspiring to such power can cause, and the impact of diaspora tourism, as those who have escaped their roots, return to reconnect and try to make sense of who they are.  (*thus qualifying Swing Time as another stop off on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading challenge)

What is on the surface the kind of story of female friendship that could give Elena Ferrante a run for her money, also delves deeply into the phenomenon of social mobility that erupted during the 1980s. It explores class, race, identity and aspiration, and, of course, not forgetting dance, the connecting theme that runs throughout. I think Zadie Smith uses dance as a metaphor for how identity shifts. It is always forever in motion, never fixed. I really enjoyed reading Swing Time, especially as I was a teen in the 80s so the references really resonated with me. It is a hugely ambitious novel, and while I think it creaks under the weight of that ambition in places, I think it’s an important book, and one which will give me plenty to think about for a very long time.

zadie Smith