Swing Time is a dramatic dance, but it’s also about race, class, sexuality, and identity, writes Annetjie van Wynegaard for the Sunday Times
Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
“It was the first day of my humiliation.” These are the opening lines to Zadie Smith’s exuberant new novel, Swing Time. The story starts just as it’s about to end, with exile and a scandal. In present-day London, the unnamed narrator finds herself in a hotel room with the curtains drawn and her phone switched off – shamed, shunned and shut off from the world.
Like the Sankofa bird with its neck eternally bent backwards, a recurring motif in the novel, the narrator looks to the beginning of her life, which she marks not as her birth but the day she met her best friend Tracey. The first thing she notes is the difference between their mothers – the narrator’s mother is a determined yet aloof autodidact from Jamaica; Tracey’s white mother’s only ambition is to “get on the disability”. Despite their differences – the narrator’s family is slightly better off than Tracey’s, yet the latter is the one with all the expensive toys – the two girls become closer than sisters. Their friendship is cemented in their shared passion for dance. The first part of the novel is a beautiful coming-of-age story of two very different girls who continue to have a lasting effect on each other’s lives into adulthood, even from a distance.
The adult narrator is, not unlike her mother, not a very likeable character. Neither is Tracey. Both girls grow up and away from each other, into roles they didn’t so much choose as submit to. Tracey, the ambitious one, makes it into dance school, while the more academically minded narrator sabotages her own chances of getting into a good school as an act of rebellion against her mother. Still driven by her love for music and dance, she becomes a personal assistant to a superstar celebrity named Aimee.
Her relationship with Aimee echoes the passive-aggressive patterns of her friendship with Tracey. Aimee is happy to have her around, as long as she’s at her beck and call and knows who the real star is. When Aimee decides to build a school in a rural West African village, the narrator starts to see her for who she really is – someone who takes and exploits and dominates. From here the story unravels fast, until the two ends meet once again.
Swing Time is a story about relationships – between two mixed-race girls, between mothers and daughters, between fathers and daughters, between friends and co-workers – and the power relations within these relationships and how they shift over time.
It’s also about race, class, sexuality, and identity. Early on in the novel little Tracey informs the unnamed narrator that having a white father is different from having a white mother.
“It turned out Tracey was as curious about my family as I was about hers, arguing, with a certain authority, that we had things ‘the wrong way round’. I listened to her theory one day during break, dipping a biscuit anxiously into my orange squash. ‘With everyone else it’s the dad,’ she said, and because I knew this to be more or less accurate I could think of nothing more to say. ‘When your dad’s white it means —’ she continued, but at that moment Lily Bingham came and stood next to us and I never did learn what it meant when your dad was white.”
In a recent essay in The Guardian, Smith writes: “I feel dance has something to tell me about what I do.” The inspiration of dance is evident between the pages of Swing Time. The novel moves effortlessly between the different timelines, pulsing and vibrating with its own rhythmic energy, flawless in its execution, demanding that you hold your breath until the very last beat.
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