2017-10-19 / Opinions

Book Review

Swing Time

“It was the first day of my humiliation.” Swing Time opens with a Prologue and this first sentence. The unnamed narrator moves on then to gradually reveal why and by whom she was being humiliated. The reader is not always in sympathy with this narrator, but author Zadie Smith has made her believable and interesting. She tells the story through flash-backs and real-time events.

The narrator met Tracey in a dance class in London when they were little girls. The only “brown” girls in the class, they soon became friends, though the narrator’s mother, an interesting character in her own right, disapproved of Tracey. The girls’ mothers were not friends; Tracey’s, though poor, tried to give her daughter everything she wanted. The narrator was jealous of this, and also of Tracey’s evident dancing ability which she did not share.

They remained friends, though, till they went to different schools, Tracey to a performing arts school, the narrator to a more demanding academic setting. Her mother aspired to an intellectual life (soon divorcing her husband) and wanted her daughter to have that kind of opportunity. No wonderful jobs presented themselves, however, and for a time she worked for a music channel.

It was there that she met the star Aimee and became her assistant. “She accepts everything that has happened to her as her destiny, no more surprised or alienated to be who she is than I imagine Cleopatra was to be Cleopatra.” Never “kindred spirits,” the two worked together well until Aimee decided to be a philanthropist and set off to Africa to found a school for girls. The narrator enjoyed this work; “there great care was taken at all times to protect me from reality… They knew how little reality we can take.” Aimee chose not to see reality and soon tired of paying attention, visiting occasionally but not devoted to her own idea.

Meanwhile, the narrator seldom saw Tracey but continued to be influenced by her memories of their girlhood, always influenced by dance and the early movies they had watched together. She assumed that Tracey had made a career of her talent until she saw Tracey’s mother with two small children on her way to pick Tracey up. Later she visited her apartment and found an overweight Tracey with three beautiful children (with three different fathers).

Men had not been a major part of the narrator’s life (partly because she was too busy) until Lamin and Fernando worked for Aimee’s school. Neither became a romantic interest for her at first, but as her life and her relationship with Aimee grew more complex, they both complicated her career and life.

This is Zadie Smith’s fifth novel. She is a journalist and award-winning writer. Her mother was from Jamaica, and race, identity, and parental issues enter her writing often. In Swing Time, she has written a compelling story about one young woman and her struggles with these themes. Swing Time is available at the Mary Willis Library.

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