Rating 3 stars
Zadie Smith’s Swing Time is a sprawling tale of how two girls’ lives intersect and separate over the years. It’s about growing up poor but aspirational, a tale of friendship and rivalry, and of the inadequacies of adulthood.
I started reading with low expectations. I didn’t like White Teeth, the only other book by Smith that I’ve read. Swing Time is lauded by many as Smith’s finest novel, though, and my husband bought it for me for me, so I felt like I should give it a go.
Almost 20 years separate the writing of her first and fifth novels, and you can tell. Swing Time is muscular in its confidence. Gone is the gauche posturing of Smith’s first novel. The humour is clearer. There’s still a crisp detachment to Smith’s observations, but the prose feels less pleased with itself.
Swing Time is what White Teeth wanted to be. There’s a nice touch, early in the story telling, in the call back to Irie from White Teeth. In Swing Time she’s a distantly seen fellow pupil of the narrator, another brown child like her, but not.
We never learn the narrator’s name. We first meet her at the back end of a scandal that has seen her brought back to London to lie low. Her first trip out after three days of seclusion is to an event at the Royal Festival Hall. The memory of her childhood love for Fred Astaire in the film Swing Time is later followed by the realisation that her favourite sequence in that film features Astaire in blackface, something she hadn’t registered in childhood.
What comes next is the narrator’s memoir, taking us from her childhood in North London in the 1980s to her work in the 1990s and early 2000s with a popstar turned philanthropist in West Africa.
The world of being the child of a mixed race couple is explored with the matter of factness that only someone who has lived it can deliver. If you read about Smith, you learn that she loved to tap dance as a child, like the narrator in Swing Time, that there was a significant age gap between her young black mother and her older white father, as with the narrator’s parents, that she grew up in Willesden, which is the setting for much of the book.
The narrator joins a Saturday dance class at the local church. Here she meets the precocious Tracey who lives in the high rise flats a block from the low rise flats the narrator lives in. It’s a subtle distinction, but one that marks out the narrator’s family as slightly better off than Tracey’s.
The narrator is the daughter of an ambitious black woman and a mundane white man. Her mother makes everything political. Her father tries desperately to keep the woman he loves. This is his second family. When he tries to bring the narrator together with the children from his other family, things don’t go to plan.
Tracey’s mother is white working class. Her absent black father is a local criminal, in and out of prison, in and out of relationships. Tracey’s mother gives her daughter whatever she wants, including the back story that her father is absent because he’s a backing dancer for Michael Jackson.
Tracey’s and the narrator’s childhoods are at once the same as everyone else’s but also different and uniquely their own. They are depicted by Smith as being mostly innocent of the racism their parents experience. Racism isn’t foregrounded in the story, but it is present in the rage against society felt by the narrator’s mother, in the attitude of the narrator’s half siblings from her father’s previous relationship towards their father’s new family, in the “typical bourgeois morality” shown by the white middle class mother of the narrator’s white middle class school friend, in the fact that Tracey’s black father chooses crime as a way of subsconsciously accommodating his skin colour to a systemically racist society.
In her early 20s, the narrator is employed by a youth TV channel that sounds like the L!VE TV channel that Janet Street-Porter and Kelvin MacKenzie ran in 1995. There’s an air of Nathan Barley about it all, too. It’s here she meets the popstar Aimee, a Madonna-like figure who was the narrator’s first pop love. She becomes Aimee’s assistant by accident and spends her time second guessing how to stay in favour with this capricious woman who is out of touch with reality but still so certain that she understands the world absolutely.
Perhaps it’s the narrator’s apparent lack of close personal friends, or a group of peers with whom she hangs out, but she didn’t seem quite real as a twenty-something. That age decade can be full of inner conflict and being with a group of peers helps individuals make sense of themselves. I’m a similar age to the narrator and my twenties saw me living in student halls of residence followed by graduate years of shared houses while I established myself as a cog in the economic machine. Although Smith touches on the narrator having that common experience of shared living with peers at university, it felt downplayed to me. Such a lot of what makes the narrator who she is, is only glanced at in Smith’s writing. I think Smith was trying to portray the narrator as solitary and unsupported. The lack of emotional depth to this portrayal, though, made it hard to care about her.
I didn’t find Aimee convincing as a major celebrity, either. She wasn’t monstrous enough. Her detachment from most people’s normality was too mild. I thought Smith could have made her more extreme, someone for the narrator and the reader to respond to strongly. The sections of the book that focus on Aimee’s adventures in philanthropy felt more like a plot vehicle than actual plot. Even here, the narrator’s experience of living in a West African village, while developing a school to lift girls out of poverty on Aimee’s behalf, doesn’t really scratch the surface of what she thinks and feels. Perhaps that’s Smith’s point. Perhaps the narrator is meant to be a vacuum.
The story about the narrator’s childhood and passage to adulthood felt more genuine, less of an emotional void. There was a stronger thread for Smith to draw on in the weaving of the story about the narrator’s relationship with her mother. This is a fractured relationship, the mother focused on herself, her own fulfilment, her need to live an emancipated life, all of which means that she never develops a bond with her daughter. Her daughter could have been nurtured to live her own fulfilled and emancipated life, but instead is left to drift, unanchored and beaconless. Smith tries to marry this to the narrator’s lack of a sense of who she is, because she is half white, half black and simultaneously neither one nor the other. She tries to bolster this in the sections set in Africa. It made me think about Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish) and how Hirsch took ownership of the experience of growing up brown in a way Smith seems hesitant to do in this novel.
Swing Time could have been a story about a failure in parenting. It could have been a story about the conflicts that are internalised by people of mixed race. It could have been an examination of philanthropic tourism and its inherent inability to effect change. It ends up failing to be any of these things.
I mostly enjoyed it but don’t feel like I gained that much from reading it. My engagement with it came in waves that were linked to how engaged I felt Smith was with her plot points. While it’s a better book than White Teeth, it hasn’t convinced me of Smith’s necessity for my reading life.