Dazzlingly energetic and deeply human, Swing Time is a story about friendship and music and stubborn roots, about how we are shaped by these things and how we can survive them. Moving from northwest London to West Africa, it is an exuberant dance to ...
Swing Time is a novel by British writer Zadie Smith, released in November 2016. The story takes place in London, New York and West Africa, and focuses on two girls who can tap dance.
Beginning in 2008, the novel tells the story of two mixed-race, black and white, girls who meet in 1982 in a tap class in London. The unnamed narrator, who has a white, working-class father, and a mother of Jamaican descent is immediately drawn to the precocious Tracey, who has a white mother and a black father in prison, as they have the same skin colour and are the only black children at their dance lessons. Despite the fact that the narrator's semi-intellectual mother looks down on Tracey, the two become best friends as they live in neighbouring estate flats. While the narrator's dance career is hampered by her flat feet, Tracey is something of a prodigy and goes on to win many awards. Tracey credits this in part to the fact that her father is one of Michael Jackson's backup dancers, a lie she makes up to explain his prolonged absences.
When the girls are ten, a twenty-two year old Australian pop-star named Aimee becomes a world-wide sensation. At the birthday party of one of their friends the girls perform a sexualized dance, inspired by Aimee's dancing which is caught on tape by one of the girls and which is cut short when the mother of the birthday girl walks in on Tracey and the narrator on top of each other.
In 1998 the narrator, newly graduated from college, is working at YTV, a music channel, and has a brief encounter with Aimee who comes to the station. When Aimee's assistant quits a month later, she hires the narrator to come work for her.
When the narrator is in her 30s, Aimee decides to build an all girls school in a rural village in an unspecified country in West Africa (implied to be Gambia). The narrator is part of Aimee's advance team along with Lamin, a young Senegalese man. Aimee builds the school but the narrator finds the work they do there questionable and often useless.
Reflecting back on her school years she recalls that, while she was identified by teachers as an advanced reader, she purposely failed her entrance exams for a grammar school. Meanwhile Tracey attended a performing arts high school and the two mostly lost touch. Occasionally seeing each other around the neighbourhood the narrator runs into Tracey a handful of times during her teenage years, once when Tracey is having a drug overdose and another time when they are recruited by their old dance instructor to handle the tickets at the children's concert. Tracey steals the money from the concert and, when she is accused of doing so, she and her mother accuse the old piano player who accompanied the dancers as children of molesting Tracey. The narrator realizes that Tracey probably was sexually assaulted as a child by her own father.
The narrator attends college and graduates jobless. Eventually she reunites with Tracey, who has a small part in a revival of Guys and Dolls and helps the narrator secure a position as a stagehand. After four months the narrator manages to get the internship at YTV. She tells this to Tracey along with the fact that she is quitting the show. In retaliation Tracey sends her a confessional letter telling the narrator that she saw her father having sex with a black blowup doll he had dressed like a golliwog. The narrator cuts off contact with Tracey, only seeing her again roughly eight years later during a performance of Show Boat. The narrator means to say hello to Tracey after the show but she instead sees Tracey's mother coming to pick her up with two small children, assumed to be Tracey's, in the backseat.
In the present the narrator continues to visit the school Aimee built and hears rumours that Aimee is in love with Lamin and wants to bring him to the U.S. The rumours turn out to be true. The narrator is assigned degrading tasks which she thinks are punishment for her disapproval of Lamin and Aimee's relationship but turn out to be because the narrator's mother, now a Member of Parliament is openly criticizing the government of the country where Aimee's school is located.
Visiting her mother, the narrator learns that Tracey has been in contact with her once again, at first because of a local issue involving her son being expelled and then contacting her three or more times a day to send abusive emails that are full of conspiracy theories. The narrator goes to Tracey's childhood flat, where she is still living, to find Tracey who is now overweight and has three children by three different men.
Returning to West Africa for a final time with Aimee, the narrator witnesses an event where she and Aimee are introduced to a beautiful three day old baby. She also begins a brief sexual affair with Lamin, who is not in love with the narrator but is unhappy with his relationship with Aimee as Aimee is much older than him. Fern, one of the men who has been hired to work on the school and who is in love with the narrator discovers the relationship between the narrator and Lamin and grows jealous.
Back in London, the narrator discovers to her shock that Aimee has adopted Sankofa, the baby they met in West Africa, through somewhat illegal means. Shortly after the narrator is fired as Fern revealed to Aimee that the narrator slept with Lamin. Angry after being thrown out of her home and realizing that her entire life was attached to Aimee, the narrator sends the news of the illegal adoption to gossip rags. Aimee and her team try to counter this by creating a blind item revealing the narrator's name, but the public is on the narrator's side. Aimee has her sent to London. Despite not loving Lamin, the narrator pays for him to meet her there.
Once in London, the video tape of the narrator dancing provocatively with Tracey is released online by Tracey and Aimee manages to smooth over the adoption scandal by having the parents of her adopted child come forward and say they are happy.
The narrator decides to move back in with her mother but discovers that she is in hospice care. She also discovers that Tracey has been continuing to send harassing emails to her mother throughout her illness. Nevertheless, the last time the narrator and her mother meet, the narrator's mother begs her to adopt Tracey's children so that they will be taken care of properly. The narrator decides that rather than adopt or ignore them she will seek out a middle ground.
The book ends on the day her mother dies when, instead of going to see her mother at the hospice, she goes to Tracey's flat and sees her and her children dancing together.
Zadie Adeline Smith FRSL (born 25 October 1975) is a contemporary English novelist, essayist, and short-story writer. Her debut novel, White Teeth (2000), immediately became a best-seller and won a number of awards. She has been a tenured professor in the Creative Writing faculty of New York University since September 2010.
Swing Time is Zadie Smith’s fifth novel and for my money her finest. A “best friend bildungsroman” in the Elena Ferrante mould, the novel tells the story of two girls growing up on the wrong side of town. Residents of neighbouring housing estates in London, the pair meet at a community dance class, one (the unnamed narrator) clever and self-doubting, the other (Tracey) confident and self-destructive. As with the Italian bestseller, the talented friend is the tortured one – prematurely sexual, rebellious at school, ungoverned at home – while the less gifted is an able student, determined to make it out of the neighbourhood. It gives little away to say that she does, becoming an assistant to a pop star called Aimee. It is by Aimee’s side that she travels the world, jetting from winters to summers.
For its plot alone, Swing Time makes for truly marvellous reading. The narrator’s journey, from gritty estate to glittering globe and back again, is the juicy stuff of which film adaptations are made. And the music! If one were to make a playlist of the references, one would have a greatest hits of black music: from Gambian drummers to Cab Calloway to Michael Jackson to Rakim. What makes Swing Time so extraordinary are the layers on which it operates; beneath its virtuosic plotting lies the keenest social commentary.
Cinematic as it is, the novel does what only literature can and what only great literature will: forces us to assess the very vocabulary with which we speak of human experience. Change is a central theme, for on one level Swing Time functions as a classic story of betterment, in which the ability to move, to change, is rendered as a form of power. The characters climb from one existential tree branch to another (presumably higher): from brown student with promise to pop star’s right hand (the narrator); from provincial Aussie girl to mega-celebrity (Aimee); from activist without a degree to member of British government (the narrator’s mother); from Willesden wild child to West End dancer (Tracey). On the face of things, it’s the more tragic characters who end where they begin: the narrator’s white father and Jamaican uncle, working-class men abandoned by their women; Tracey’s mother, unattractive and overweight, last seen as we see her first: in the service of her daughter.
By the rules of the 21st-century success story, blessed are they who can reinvent themselves. Swing Time asks us to reconsider. Does one who succeeds in leaving home gain power or lose it? Has one necessarily bettered oneself by moving, say, into a more impressive house or do the truly powerful feel at home just where they are?
When the narrator travels to the Gambia to help Aimee open a school for girls, she meets Hawa, the middle-class daughter of teachers. Hawa, we are told, would have been the jewel in the crown of any small village anywhere. “She had, unlike me, no contempt whatsoever for village life: she loved the smallness, the gossip, the repetition and the closeness of family… I lay on the floor next to her each night, on our neighbouring mattresses, grateful for the blue aura that came off her Samsung as she scrolled through her messages… laughing or sighing at pictures that amused her, breaking up the dark.”
Hawa, logic suggests, should want to leave her village for a “better” life. The question is: better according to whom? The narrator sees the village as pitiful; both Hawa, a privileged member of it, and Granger, Aimee’s African American bodyguard, view it differently. “Where I saw deprivation, injustice, poverty, Granger saw simplicity, a lack of materialism, communal beauty… Where I saw polygamy, misogyny, motherless children (my mother’s island childhood, only writ large, enshrined in custom), he remembered… a depressed single mother [and] spoke to me with genuine tears in his eyes of how happier he might have been raised by not one woman but 15.”
Here we come to Smith’s second major preoccupation: relativity. Nothing in this novel exists in the absolute. Race, colour, class, even happiness, exist only as relative concepts. In London the biracial narrator is brown, in the Gambia white. Tracey comes from a broken home, the narrator from a breaking one. Aimee is privileged in the narrator’s eyes (and ours), the narrator in the villagers’. Most important, triumph to one character is tragedy to another; the currency of happiness is not objective success but subjective satisfaction. By Granger’s logic – indeed, the novel’s – emotional security is to be prized over material. In this, the least likely characters carry the day.
The narrator frequently compares the Gambian village with her London estate, making note of her own estrangement in so doing. Young Gambian teachers have “an attitude I remembered from the old neighbourhood, a way of representing… I always felt absurd next to them”. Hawa is a “kind of girl who wants only one thing from this life: to have fun. I remembered the type very well from my own school days, girls like that have always mystified me – they still do.”
In both the village and the estate, the narrator feels a sense of unbelonging. But Tracey does not. Tracey is the narrator’s abiding point of reference, the one with the talent, the clarity and the fire. It is relative to Tracey, above all, that the narrator seeks to feel successful. But Tracey, like Hawa, is content with “village life”, less motivated by a desperation to leave the estate than a desire to feel empowered within it. Her success as a dancer is relative: for all her dazzling talent as a student, she never moves beyond the chorus line as a professional; still, the neighbourhood girls regard her “with a wild admiration”.
Tracey possesses gifts that appear to be wasted on the wider world: “a gift for seeing that seemed to have its only outlet and expression here, in my living room, in front of my television, and which no teacher ever saw, and no exam ever managed to successfully register or even note, and of which, perhaps, these memories are the only true witness and record”.
But if we are tempted to view Tracey as a failure – for, she, too, ends where she begins: in precisely the same flat, watching precisely the same movies, moved by precisely the same passions – the narrator cannot. In the final frame Tracey is doing what she loves, surrounded by people she loves; a woman who has beaten her own path and followed it back to the temple of her familiar. It is the narrator, whether on a “neighbouring mattress” or in a neighbouring building, who feels herself lost, relying on the light of others for “breaking up the dark” of her alienation. With shifting identities (brown, white; goth, “conscious”; “big woman”, fallen heroine), our narrator seeks above all a place where she belongs.
That place is what a best friend, even an estranged one, can be, especially for a woman. Its comforts cannot be underestimated, not least in a life of great change. Like all of Smith’s novels, Swing Time has brilliant things to say about race, class, and gender, but its most poignant comment is perhaps this. Given who we are, who we are told that we are not, and who we imagine we might become, how do we find our way home? Granger’s romanticisation of village life, undoubtedly naive, rests on a correct understanding: that belonging has a value all its own.
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