If all the Saturdays of 1982 can be thought of as one day, I met Tracey at ten a.m. on that Saturday, walking through the sandy gravel of a churchyard, each holding our mother’s hand. There were many other girls present but for obvious reasons we noticed each other, the similarities and the differences, as girls will. Our shade of brown was exactly the same – as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both – and our freckles gathered in the same areas, we were of the same height.
We, the reader, meet the unnamed narrator of Zadie Smith’s fifth novel, Swing Time, at the end of her story. She’s been sacked from her job and is holed up in a flat in St John’s Wood. When she’s given the all clear by the doorman, she goes for a walk, finding herself at an event at the Royal Festival Hall where a clip from the Fred Astaire film Swing Time is played.
I saw all my years at once, but they were not piled up on each other, experience after experience, building into something of substance – the opposite. A truth was being revealed to me: that I always had tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.
The narrator returns to her early days, to meeting Tracey at the dance class in the church hall. The narrator and Tracey’s mothers couldn’t be more different: the narrator’s mother is a femininst, a student, wears ‘her hair in a half-inch Afro’ and dresses ‘for a future not yet with us but which she expected to arrive’; Tracey’s mother is ‘white, obese, afflicted with acne’, wears her hair in a ‘Kilburn facelift’ and is covered in diamantes. Perhaps the difference between the two is most perfectly summarised:
We were both from the estates, neither of us received benefits. (A matter of pride for my mother, an outrage to Tracey’s: she had tried many times – and failed – to ‘get on the disability’.)
In terms of class, they might be part of the same economic group but their styles mark them as different types of people.
Two stories are told simultaneous in the novel: the first is that of the narrator’s friendship with Tracey, through dance, through school, through hanging out at each other’s houses watching musicals and Michael Jackson videos. The second is the that of the narrator’s early-adult life, of her role as a PA to a world-famous pop star.
The narrator meets Aimee when she comes to the YTV studios where the narrator works. Although she thinks she’s made a bad impression, the narrator is invited to an interview with Aimee soon after. The bulk of the Aimee section of the novel covers the school project which she undertakes in a village in West Africa.
Governments are useless, they can’t be trusted, Aimee explained to me, and charities have their own agendas, churches care more for souls than for bodies. And so if we want to see real change in the world…then we ourselves have to be the ones to do it, yes, we have to be the change we want to see. By ‘we’ she meant people like herself, of financial means and global reach, who happen to love freedom and equality, want justice, feel an obligation to do something good with their own good fortune. It was a moral category but also an economic one. And if you followed its logic all the way to the end of the revolving belt, then after a few miles you arrived at a new idea, that wealth and morality are in essence the same thing, for the more money a person had, then the more goodness – or potential for goodness – a person possessed.
However, Aimee wants to impose her version of change, what she thinks is necessary, onto a culture which doesn’t necessarily agree. Her work in West Africa causes problems not only for the community but also for some individuals who become heavily involved in the project. It’s not difficult to substitute a number of big-name stars for Aimee nor the white Western world collectively.
Through the story of two mixed-race girls from the same North London estate, Smith considers talent and the barriers to success; the role of culture in society; race, particularly the West’s role in/on the African continent; politics; friendship, and the mother/daughter relationship. It feels like a lot for a novel to hold but it’s skilfully done; there isn’t a single moment when the book feels like a polemic rather than a novel.
The structure of the book moves between the two stories. Smith runs them practically side-by-side, moving towards the point when the narrator loses her job. By doing so, she asks questions about the impact of the past on our present/future and whether we truly leave our experiences and upbringing behind.
Swing Time is an entertaining, thoughtful novel which engages both on a storytelling level and on one of broader questions about society and its role in individual’s lives.
Thanks to Hamish Hamilton for the review copy