Swing Time by Zadie Smith – book review

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by Edith Cody-Rice

swing-time-001I always feel a ‘frisson’ of anticipation when I approach a Zadie Smith novel. Something about her writing is delightful. She has an observant eye, an ironic twist and makes me enter a world about which I know little but which comes vividly alive. I well remember my favourite so far and her first, White Teeth, which introduced me to the world of North London (England) black culture and made me both laugh out loud and think seriously about this world about which I knew nothing. She was 24 and still a student when it was published.

Zadie Smith herself is a daughter of a Jamaican mother and a white British father who was 30 years older than her mother. Her brothers are a stand up comic and a musician who use their family as material and as she said in a CBC interview, her mother is bemused by the amount of creative material that has derived from this “not particularly interesting” (Zadie’s words) family.

Zadie Smith’s new novel Swing Time does not disappoint. It recounts the friendship of two mixed race girls from the ‘estates’ in North London, both aspiring dancers. One is academically gifted, but not a natural dancer, and the other, Tracey, is a leader, a talented dancer, but far from intellectual. The title is taken from the Fred Astaire film Swing Time. The friends both admire the dancers of that era and watch old Astaire era movies obsessively.

The story is told in the first person by the academically gifted girl who yearns to be a dancer, herself the daughter of an intellectual black Jamaican mother and an unambitious white father. She grows up to become a personal assistant to a superstar, Aimee, similar in some respects to Madonna, while her friend goes on to dance professionally. This is not a funny novel like White Teeth, but a vivid one, laced with irony and some profound insights, often delivered by the protagonist’s very talented and committed Jamaican mother, who educated herself while raising her daughter and rose to become a member of the UK Parliament. Discussing her daughter’s life as an assistant to Aimee, the mother has this exchange with the protagonist.

Mother: You’re addicted to that phone. You do know that?”

Daughter: I didn’t stop typing but made my face as calm as I could manage

“It’s work,Mum. This is how people work now.”

“You mean: like slaves?”

She ripped a piece of bread in half and offered the smaller section to Miriam, something I’d seen her do before. it was her version of a diet. 

“No, not like slaves, Mum, I have a nice life!”

She Thought about this with her mouth full. She shook her head. 

“No, that’s not right — you don’t have a life. She (Aimee) has a life. She has her men and her children and her career – she has the life. We read about it in the papers. You service her life. She’s a giant sucking thing, sucking your youth, taking up all your –“

This is one of Ms. Smith’s great themes – people feeding off other people, countries feeding off other countries – systems of power.

The superstar decides to do “good works” in Africa and ham handedly founds a school for girls, not knowing the context, the politics or the realities on the ground for the small African community that she chooses. The book investigates, through the protagonist, the implications of being black in both a black African  and a mixed western culture.

Zadie Smith also uses the book to investigate the life of public committed intellectuals (in the person of the mother) and the effect on their intimate personal life.

The essence of the story is about a recognition of ‘limits’ Ms. Smith states: the limits of human and political perfectibility. Most people have limits, but some, like Aimee and her friend, Tracey, have none. They can spin out of control but they can also create change. Ms. Smith does admire limitlessness, particularly in women, but she herself believes in the limit of a human life and the humility and propriety to know where your power ends, and the ability to make peace with that.

It takes a while to notice that the protagonist, the intellectual, does not have a name. This is intentional, says Ms. Smith. we don’t call ourselves by name and this story is told in the first person. She also does not name the African country, although it is a real country. She did this because she wants readers to realize what they are doing. For westerners, what country it is frequently is of little interest. What does it feel like to grow up in a country that is so insignificant that the rest of the world has no idea it exists?  In fact, she was surprised when readers e-mailed her confidently and erroneously naming the country. They had not even bothered to Google it.

I definitely recommend this novel to your Christmas list. An added intelligent element is that chapters are relatively short, meaning that you can read one more before your put out your bedside light.

Swing Time is published under the Penguin Canada imprint of Hamish Hamilton

Listen to Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with Zadie Smith here