Zadie Smith’s White Teeth remains, I think, my favourite of Smith’s novels. At least, I find it the most comic, and Autograph Man perhaps her most clever. Swing Time, despite its title, I found subtly muted, and it’s this restraint that gives the novel its power. The story of two girls who attend the same dancing class in working class north London spans decades and continents. One, the narrator, grows up to be fired after nearly ten years as the Personal Assistant of an Australian superstar; the other, Tracey, to be a chorus dancer and single mother.
The narrator’s experiences in the entourage of the entertainer Aimee take her into the world of the super-rich, globe-trotting, glitterati but deny her the chance to find the place where she truly belongs, and the novel ends on an almost Joycean note of melancholy epiphany as unemployed, childless, un-partnered, and unseen, the narrator watches from below as Tracey dances with her children on the balcony of their council flat. The narrator is looking up to the old friend on whom, if truth be told, she had rather looked down or, perhaps worse, pitied, for much of her life. Tracey has found her place, even if it is the place where she began. Her life as an adult is not that different from her own mother’s life. The narrator’s life has also brought her back to where she started, and it is from this place that she will have to begin again, to move into a new figure in the dance of life.
My use of the dance metaphor echoes Smith’s own, since she includes as an epigraph to the work the Hausa proverb: “When the music changes, so does the dance.” Dance requires specific movements, choreography. Traditional dances, whether defined as folk or ballroom dances, follow a recognised, accepted pattern, each dance having its own particular steps, shapes and so on. The dancer moves through that pattern, stepping forwards and back, side to side. Smith structures her novel into a pattern of seven parts each with several chapters. Within these sections of the work, the narrator moves backwards and forwards between her childhood and more recent past, rather as a dancer moves through the phases of a dance, progressing, regressing, changing partners, her progress interweaving with that of the other dancers. A misstep by one of the dancers disrupts the fluency of the movement, sometimes to the point that the dance must end. A dancer, too, can improvise only so far without breaking up the dance. There are expectations, defined roles.
Defining oneself and finding one’s place are usually challenging for all young people; the situation becomes more so for Tracey and the narrator when they are young because both girls are mixed-race. In outlining the difficulties of navigating the associations with and expectations of race, location, and history, Smith revisits familiar ground in Swing Time, and this novel continues her examination of living in our perhaps not so post-colonial world, especially when the results of past colonizations are indelibly ingrained within one’s skin. It is too easy for us to say the past is done with. Is it? Just how do we define colonialism? When does aid become intrusion and condescension? All these questions are raised in the novel as are questions of class and gender. Just what is sacrificed, if anything, by those who attempt to transcend the apparent limitations of both?
At heart, Swing Time is a novel about movement, change, and empowerment. The characters around the narrator move, change, reach for dreams. Some fail; some succeed. The narrator moves and observes but doesn’t always see except perhaps at the very end when she realises that despite everything her old friend Tracey has something that is lacking in her own life. While she had thought she was empowered, her dismissal by Aimee makes the narrator’s position very clear. She has stepped out of line, forgotten her place in the hierarchy of Aimee’s entourage. Her naivety allows the reader to see what the narrator herself appears to miss and allows Smith not unsympathetically to critique the various milieux in which the narrator finds herself.
I found this novel sensitive, serious, subtle. I sensed critique but no stridency, just a kind of melancholy world weariness, a kind of resigned sympathy for those of us who like the narrator observe but do not see.