Zadie Smith has a tough act to follow: herself. While her new novel Swing Time is smart, ambitious in scope, and revisits many of the same pertinent themes as her previous novels, it doesn’t quite measure up to the grace, artistry, pacing, and depth of some of her previous works like White Teeth, On Beauty, and NW.
Spanning the 1980s to 2008 and moving around the globe from London to New York to Africa, Swing Time is sort of a coming-of-age novel that follows the childhood friendship of two biracial girls living in the estates in London.
Tracey and the unnamed narrator meet in a dance class when they are children and grow up together as friends and rivals. Tracey pursues a less-than-successful and relatively short-lived dancing career while the narrator goes to university and ends up as an assistant to a famous pop star named Aimee. While the friendship between the girls ends when they are teenagers and their lives follow different paths, they still intersect occasionally, even into adulthood.
By far the most compelling and complex character is the somewhat unreliable narrator of the novel. While not always admirable, the narrator is credible in her contradictions, inconsistencies, strengths, and faults, unlike most of the other characters who fall into stereotypes such as Tracey, Aimee, and the narrator’s mother.
For instance, Aimee, a white, entitled, very wealthy, and successful pop star reminiscent of Madonna, travels the world with her entourage, demands utter loyalty and commitment from her staff, is self righteous, and sees herself as a philanthropist and expert because of her success. Despite knowing nothing of the culture, education, or government, Aimee decides to fund a girls’ school in Africa.
The narrator details and critiques Aimee’s plan: “And so if we want to see real change in this world, she continued, adjusting the incline on her running machine. . . By ‘we’ she meant people like herself, of financial means and global reach, who happen to love freedom and equality, want justice, feel an obligation to do something good with their own good fortune. It was a moral category, but also an economic one.”
Swing Time covers a lot of ground. Zadie Smith explores such issues as race, class, relationships, power, and culture from London to Africa. Smith uses the motif of a shadow and allusions to the movie Swing Time, a film that the narrator and Tracey watched as children. In Swing Time Fred Astaire, dressed in blackface, dances with three silhouetted figures who turn out to be his shadows.
As an adult, after viewing the film she naively loved as a child, the narrator comments: “A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.” The narrator’s words evoke the some of the same themes as well as the words and experiences of the first-person narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
The structure of Smith’s novel Swing Time also mimics the back and forth movement of swing and the film in the way it moves back and forth in time. The prologue of the novel begins at the end of the story and then moves back and forth between scenes of the narrator’s childhood and adulthood and between London and Africa.
Swing Time is well written, complex, and thought provoking but also long and overblown; perhaps it takes on a bit too much. While in many ways it is an impressive work, Swing Time is not among Zadie Smith’s finest works.