Zadie Smith’s ‘Swing Time’ Does a Difficult Dance

Learning from the past is not as simple as pressing rewind: it's a dance that's quite difficult to execute.

Ever since James Wood irritably classified Zadie Smith’s debut novel White Teeth (2000) as “hysterical realism,” quite a lot of ink has been spilled praising or deriding the adaptability of her subsequent fiction. Yet while her techniques and influences have indeed varied over time — On Beauty (2005), for example, paid homage to the domestic interplay of E.M. Forster’s Howards End, while NW (2012) refracted contemporary London through a gaze evoking Virginia Woolf — Smith’s vivacious, wide-roving, and often satirical perspective has consistently provided a stylistic through-line.

With her most recent novel, Swing Time, Smith continues her protean evolution by downplaying her characteristic humor and exploring the lives of her characters through a subjective first-person viewpoint, a technique she had not attempted until now. When we first encounter our narrator, who remains unnamed throughout, she’s encamped in a London flat, recently dismissed from her position as personal assistant to an Australian pop-star named Aimee. Clearly harmed by her proximity to fame, the narrator seems to provide Smith a means of critiquing all the attention she has received since her ascendance in the literary world at the age of 24. (Surely hype and jealousy have had something to do with all the critical nit-picking.)

But Swing Time is chiefly concerned with other, loftier, themes, many of which — race, parenting, female friendship, the passage of time — are recurrent for Smith, allowing the novel to comfortably inhabit her oeuvre despite also being a departure of sorts. The plot is divided into interwoven twin braids that each center around one of the narrator’s defining female relationships. We find that, before professionally fawning over Aimee, the narrator was enraptured with a childhood friend named Tracey with whom she eventually lost touch. Thinking back to the day they first met outside of a dance class, the narrator notes, “There were many other girls present but for obvious reasons we noticed each other… Our shade of brown was exactly the same — as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both.” But even though they live in adjacent council estates, are both biracial, and are each obsessed with dance, the two girls don’t always make a perfect match.

To Tracey, the fact that the narrator’s father is white and her mother Jamaican means that their family has things “the wrong way round.” Tracey’s own father drifts in and out of the picture, and she explains his absence by casting him as a backup dancer for Michael Jackson. Meanwhile, Tracey’s doting mother buys her daughter all the latest toys and lets the girls watch Top of the Pops while they eat angel cakes for dinner. In comparison, the narrator’s home feels drab and loveless, if a bit more practical. Her mother spends most of her time reading political and social theory, destined to one day acquire a university degree and a seat in Parliament. Her postal worker father plays the role of primary caretaker, cooking dinner, packing lunches, and taking her to dance classes.

With the benefits of a progressive household not yet clear to her, the narrator is “confused and wounded” by her mother’s “refusal to submit to me,” and a feeling of inadequacy colors her conception of herself throughout the novel. She’s the sort of character who could only unveil herself over the course of an entire book, and even then we must work hard to inspect what’s been concealed. Finding it easier to idolize others than build her own self-esteem, she decides early on “that if I could dance like Tracey I would never want for anything else in this world”:

Every movement was as sharp and precise as any child could hope to make it, her body could align itself with any time signature, no matter how intricate… I was — I am — in awe of Tracey’s technique.

The girls spend a great deal of time watching music videos and imitating their raunchy dance moves (thanks to Tracey’s insistence), but the narrator prefers the more graceful choreography of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. She recalls a VHS tape she and Tracey watched countless times: “We were the first generation to have, in our own homes, the means to re- and forward-wind reality: even very small children could press their fingers against the clunky buttons and see what-has-been become what-is or what-will-be.” In the same fashion, the novel itself begins to two-step back and forth in time, dancing between Tracey’s story and Aimee’s. (The book’s title, borrowed from an Astaire film that proves pivotal to the plot, also underscores the emphasis on malleable time.)

It perhaps comes as no surprise that a protagonist so prone to idolatry would grow up to assist a self-indulgent pop-star, helping Aimee “float over the surface” of life while wading “through the tangled weeds” of her own selflessness. Despite having completely relinquished any life of her own, the narrator tirelessly coddles Aimee, “a person for whom I scheduled abortions, hired dog walkers, ordered flowers, wrote Mother’s Day cards, applied creams, administered injections, squeezed spots, wiped very occasional break-up tears, and so on.” With all the refuse of her life neatly stacked, Aimee is free to view her accomplishments as fated. Having purportedly experienced a difficult childhood, she’s a spokesperson for upward mobility.

As selfless and banal as the narrator’s job is in practice, the global jet-setting and proximity to glamour do comprise a success story for a biracial girl from a Northwest London project. But even though she has come a long way, she remains haunted by her inability to live up to her mother’s expectations. Much of this confusion can be traced back to the “private drama” of her racial identity, which often makes her feel like “a changeling belonging to neither” her father nor her mother. Determined not to feel confused, she seems to be in denial about a world that refuses to see her as anything but black. Her mother, having no time for the trivialities of dance or pop culture, announces:

“All that matters in this world… is what’s written down. But what happens with this” — she gestured at my body — “that will never matter, not in this culture, not for these people, so all you’re doing is playing the game by their rules, and if you play that game, I promise you, you’ll end up a shade of yourself.”

This is the “game,” we realize along with the narrator, that Tracey has played, despite — or perhaps because of — her early success as a dancer. Having largely escaped from this particular struggle, the narrator is left to puzzle out what remains of her “blackness.” In the latter half of the novel, she spends a great deal of time in a West African village where Aimee is building a school for girls; here she finds the complexity of her identity suddenly rendered moot:

I was not… standing… with my extended tribe, with my fellow black women… There were only the Sere women, the Wolof, the Mandinka, the Serahuli, the Fula and the Jola, the last of whom, I was told once, grudgingly, I resembled.

Here, the very gains that the narrator has made threaten to shut her out of the potential catharsis of visiting the “motherland” that her own mother so blatantly romanticizes. While even the poorest members of the village can trace their ancestry for generations, the narrator — like any descendent of slaves — must grasp desperately for any authentic connection to the past. This double bind, which makes her an outsider both at home and in Africa, accentuates the importance of the novel itself as a reckoning with the crosscurrents and contradictions of history.

Very early on, the narrator’s mother tells her of the sankofa, a bird from Ghanaian folklore that has become important to African diaspora: “It looks backward, at the past, and it learns from what’s gone before.” Swing Time is an ambitious and fulfilling exploration of this folkloric concept, swinging from one time frame to another without trying to fill in all the gaps. Whether relating to cultural heritage, childhood rivalry, or the back-and-forth routines of Astaire and Rogers, learning from the past is not as simple as pressing rewind: it’s a dance that’s quite difficult to execute.

RATING 7 / 10