Swing Time by Zadie Smith begins in London in the 1980s. It’s the story of two young girls, with stars in their eyes. They live on the same London estate, but come from very different families. The girls grow up together watching Hollywood musicals. They want to learn the steps of legendary dancers like Fred Astaire, and practise them in their own dance classes.
The narrator’s mother is aspirational and driven. She becomes a prominent black voice in the Labour movement. The narrator’s father, a postman, can never fit into this world and is left behind, stifling his heartbreak with marijuana.
Then there is Tracey, the narrator’s “friend”. She is beautiful, confident, talented, and wins all the prizes. Her mother has thin blond hair, cheap costume jewellery, and a surfeit of logos. She showers Tracey with toys and short term goals. Tracey idolises her absent father, claiming he is on a world tour with Michael Jackson. The truth is he is prison. He is feted on his release by his West Indian pals. There is a faint romantic element to this minor character but it is dashed when the narrator sees him trailing another family, one Tracey does not even know exists, through the dull London streets.
Zadie Smith is at her best in this part of the book, where she describes the petty jealousies of the children and the discord between mothers who are so different in their child rearing and social aspirations. The narrator is very human, and the streets of London really come to life. You could compare Smith to Dickens in her evocation of British social class and snobbery. She has a sure touch. There is realism, psychological detail, and a good deal of humour. But Smith’s characters are more rounded and human than Dickens’, they are not caricatures.
Later the girls drift apart. The narrator spends couple of years at a run down university by the coast – not good enough for her mother, who wanted Oxbridge or at least a Russell Group institution. There are a couple of interesting character studies in this section, especially that of her young lover who is permanently stoned. He is obsessed with numerology, conspiracy theories and black politics. She leaves him and moves on, realising on graduation day, when she meets his very ordinary mother, what a good decision that was.
The bulk of the rest of the novel deals with the narrator’s role as personal assistant to Aimee, an international popstar originally from Australia. (Kylie Minogue comes to mind as a model.)
Aimee decides to sponsor a school in Africa, so we go there and meet with some of the political issues surrounding developmental work. There is poverty and corruption. There are African dictators and islamic fundamentalists who lay a deadening hand on the village culture. There are romantic liaisons and possibilities. Meanwhile in a series of flashbacks we learn more about the lives of the narrator and her parents, and about Tracey.
The narrator visits the island from which Kunta Kinte was sent in chains to the new world. Of course Kunta Kinte is only a character in a novel. As if to point out this irony, the decrepit and neglected souvenir shop is run by an aged white Californian. Smith points out through the narrator’s voice that bloodshed and cruelty know no boundaries of race and creed. They are the eternal consequence of abuse of power, of the strong preying on the weak.
But Aimee is a symbol. She is the colonising force that has taken over the narrator’s life, and the lives of the villagers. Money can open any door for her, but she wields her power ultimately to selfish ends cultivating a vulnerable younger man as a potential lover, and in effect stealing a child through adoption. The parallels with African history are obvious.
When the unnamed narrator sees a performance of Showboat in which Tracey has a minor part as a dancer, she is shocked by In Dahomey, a dance usually cut from modern productions due to its racist and stereotypical presentation of Africans. As children, Tracey and the narrator idolised Jeni Le Gon, a black dancer. They realise that both Astaire and Michael Jackson copied a move that Le Gon invented, and romanticise her life. But the narrator later discovers this talented dancer was largely ignored by the stars and the Hollywood studios, treated as no more than a maid.
In the end the narrator finds herself back in London. For years she has lived the life that Aimee created for her. It was a gilded cage. She wonders anyway whether, in Aimee’s choreographed world she was merely a cipher, a token black person.
Now she is adrift, without an identity or a place of her own.
This is a very good book. It’s interesting throughout and there’s a wide cast of varied characters. It’s very funny in places, and made me laugh out loud.
But I did not find the parts set in Africa, or the later stages of the novel, as convincing as those in London which describe the girls’ childhood, where Smith was clearly drawing on her own life experiences.