Zadie Smith is one of those writers I have been meaning to read forever but never getting around to, probably because her work comes with so much literary acclaim I was afraid it was going to be impenetrable and a little boring (because let’s be honest, some — by no means all, but some — books that win a lot of literary awards are less than fun to read). I couldn’t have been more wrong. When I finally picked up Swing Time (because of the happy coincidence of it appearing both on the Booker Prize longlist and my library’s list of available e-books this summer), I was immediately drawn in to a believable character with a compelling voice and a richly drawn world that I found hard to put down. I will definitely be reading more of Zadie Smith.
The first-person narrator of Swing Time (who never reveals her name, though it took me more than halfway through the book to realize this) is a young girl of mixed race (black mother, white father) growing up on a North London council estate in the 1980s. She takes dance lessons as a young girl, and though she shows no remarkable talent, she develops a passionate interest in dance and the history of dance, immersing herself in old Fred Astaire movies on TV and VHS, and devouring the biographies of dancers as her recreational reading. In young adulthood, she is suddenly catapulted from her entry level job in television to an entirely different and more glamorous life when she gets hired as a personal assistant to a major pop star, and plunges into the world of the rich and famous.
The narrator herself is a young woman constantly in search of herself, trying to discover or carve out for herself a place in the world and a distinctive sense of who she is, caught as she is between races, between social classes, between possible identities. One thing that makes the novel refreshing is that although the main character has relationships (of various kinds) with several men, these are not the key relationships in her quest to define herself and her life. Rather, it’s the influence of three important women who shape and mold her, though in every case she identifies herself more in opposition than in relationship to them.
The first of these is her mother, as it is for most women. The narrator’s mother is the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, married to a working-class white man and living in near-poverty, but determined to get an education and better not only herself but her community. It’s a surprise to no-one when she ends up in politics. Her daughter feels a mix of admiration and resentment towards this strong-willed woman who is so intensely focused on political and social action, on striving for something better.
The second influence is Tracey, who is the narrator’s childhood best friend. Superficially the two girls are quite similar: both grow up in the same public-housing development; both take dance lessons and love dance; both are of mixed race. But there are huge differences as well that eventually threaten and fracture their friendship: differences in talent, in ambition, and, despite the fact that they both grow up on a council estate, class differences as well. The narrator is constantly comparing herself to Tracey, measuring herself against Tracey, reacting to things Tracey has done.
A third influence is Aimee, the Madonna-like pop star who the narrator ends up working for. White, Australian-born Aimee is a massive superstar whose wealth and fame insulates her from even the faintest inkling of what life is like for most people. When she decides to use her wealth to do some good in the world, she ends up opening a school for girls in a West African village (shades of Oprah there), and the narrator finds herself on the ground in the village, realizing how far she, as a black woman from the UK, is from the life of an African villager.
These three women — middle-class, poor, and fabulously weathly; black, mixed-race, and white — illustrate the different worlds between which the narrator is pulled, the possible lives she can imagine for herself, though in fact (unlike any of the other three women) her life is far more determined by chance, circumstance and other people’s choices than by any clear goals and ambitions she sets for herself.
As with the last novel I read, Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues, there were a few points in Swing Time where the plot thinned a bit — there were a few events that didn’t feel big enough to carry the emotional weight the character placed on them. But the voice, the depiction of setting and the relationships between the characters, the wonderful way in which a whole world in place and time can be sketched with a few well-chosen sentences: all these things are definitely going to bring me back to Zadie Smith’s writing again.