In 400-plus pages, the narrator of SWING TIME chooses not to reveal her name to the reader. Going back and forth between her childhood in north London estate housing and her accidental career as personal assistant to a jet-setting, global celebrity named Aimee, she paints detailed pictures of her ambitious Jamaican mother and lackadaisical white father, and especially of her frenemy, Tracey. Tracey and the narrator meet in dance class. “Other girls had rhythm in their limbs, some had it in their hips or their little backsides but she had rhythm in individual ligaments, probably in individual cells.” Their skin is a similar caramel color, right down to their freckled noses, but in Tracey’s case her mother is white ---- white trash, to be more precise --- and her black father is not a part of her everyday life. Tracey claims he’s a dancer with Michael Jackson, but in reality he’s in and out of jail.
"Zadie Smith is a stellar writer, and her take on the themes of this book are rich and rewarding."
While our narrator doesn’t have Tracey’s natural dance talent, she is (in her own way) devoted to dance, compulsively watching and rewatching old musicals on video. In the musical Swing Time, Fred Astaire performs a number in blackface, and it’s a kind of wakeup call to her growing awareness of race and class. “I became fixated, too, upon Katharine Hepburn’s famous Fred and Ginger theory: He gives her class, she gives him sex. Was this a general rule? Did all friendships --- all relations --- involve this discreet and mysterious exchange of qualities, this exchange of power?”
Zooming forward through time, we meet Aimee, the phenomenon who frames and confines our narrator’s adult working life. “Whenever they listened to her records they felt they were meeting her --- they still do.” Working for Aimee, our narrator has no time for friends, jetting from London to New York to Berlin to Paris with her boss, clearing the way, taking care of details. When Aimee takes it into her head to start a new school in West Africa, we spend a lot of time in the small village where the school is to be built. Our narrator makes new acquaintances --- Hawa, a vibrant young village woman; Fernando, the man hired to actually get the school built; and Lamin, a local schoolteacher who catches Aimee’s eye. She visits Kunta Kinteh island, where so many slaves were bought and sold. “Now that I was here, in this storied corner of the continent, I experienced it not as an exceptional place but as an example of a general rule. Power had preyed on weakness here: all kinds of power --- local, racial, tribal, royal, national, global, economic --- on all kinds of weakness, stopping at nothing, not even at the smallest girl child. But power does that everywhere.”
Zadie Smith is a stellar writer, and her take on the themes of this book are rich and rewarding. But for me, the many elements did not really cohere, and the non-linear exposition made it difficult to follow. Perhaps there are two books here, not one. At the start of Part Two, it’s clear that the narrator’s relationship with Tracey has suffered a violent end, but we don’t find out why for a hundred pages, by which time we don’t care as much as we might. At a birthday party for one of Aimee’s children, a magician performs. “Lamin looked mesmerized --- everybody did. I could hear, very faintly, Chinese prayer music, and understood, in the abstract, that this must be part of the effect. I could see what everyone was feeling, but I was not with them and could not feel it.” While this book has much to offer, in the end, I couldn’t feel it either.
Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on November 17, 2016