Swing Time is Zadie Smith’s fifth novel but the first I have read and I’m looking forward to reading her earlier works. The book is a complex but very readable examination of race, identity, place and time. The story follows the different life trajectories of two mixed-race girls who both come from socially deprived areas in London. The unnamed narrator has a Jamaican mother and white father, as does the author, and Tracey has a white mother and a, mostly absent, black father.
The girls meet at dance classes and stand out as the only mixed-race girls. Tracey is by far the better dancer and attends stage school as she dreams that dancing will allow her to break free of her deprived background. The narrator’s upwardly mobile mother, who eventually becomes an MP, has different plans for her daughter and she follows a different path leaving the Council estate and attending university.
Throughout the book, although written in the first person, the narrator remains a shadowy figure. We always see her in relation to others: first her feminist, intellectual and ambitious mother; then her friend Tracey who directs their play, devising dance routines; then Aimee, the Australian pop star both girls idolised when they were young, to whom she becomes a PA.
The title of the book has multiple meanings in the story. Firstly, it refers to a style of music and dance which we learn in the prologue is also the title of a Fred Astaire movie. The narrator had watched it over and over when a child but as an adult is shocked that she had somehow forgotten that Astaire appears in black face: ‘I’d managed to block the childhood image from my memory: the rolling eyes, the white gloves, the Bojangles grin. I felt very stupid’.
The title also refers to the way the story swings back and forth in time, from the present, going back to earlier times, back to the present and then events trigger a memory for the narrator, often of her childhood friendship with Tracey. There are also references to historical time when the narrator describes her adolescent years as: ‘my own middle passage’. This is the middle leg of the triangular slave trade which went from Europe to West Africa to the Caribbean and America then back to Europe. This reference to the slave trade also relates back to the narrator’s reactions, both as a child and an adult, to Astaire appearing as Mr Bojangles.
The issues of race and identity permeate the book. For most of her life, the narrator has seen herself and is seen by others, as underprivileged and black but, when she visits Africa with pop star Aimee who wants to build a village school in Togo, she is seen as wealthy and white. She also visits a slave museum built at one of the original middle passage trading posts but at both places finds it impossible, despite her black ancestry, to imagine how life was and is for the local people.
The friendship between the two girls is a constant theme in the background of the book, even when they do not see each other for years as the narrator broods over how she and Tracey treated each other badly. At the end, after her mother has died, the narrator goes to see Tracey in the same flat on the same rundown Council estate and, despite the years, finds Tracey still dancing: ‘She was right above me…her hands in the air, turning, turning, her children around her, everybody dancing’.
Reviewed by: Jan Kershaw
Rating out of 10: 8