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Zadie Smith: Swing Time

Swing Time is one of the best films made by Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire (you can see a clip here) and has a certain influence on our unnamed narrator when she is young, going to dance class and has dreams of being a dancer. Many girls dream of becoming a dancer and very few do. Our narrator does not.

We first meet her when she seems to have been sent home from the United States for some unspecified reason, presumably fired from a job. It seems to be connected with fame, as she is hiding from the press. We do not learn the reasons till much later in the book.

We start with her as a child. She is English, with a white father and black mother, whose family came from Jamaica. We and she later learn that the father has two children (from a white mother) from a previous relationship. Our narrator meets them twice, the second time at their father’s funeral. They do not get on with her. Her father, a postman by profession, is the more domestic one – cooking and cleaning and so on – while her mother is more interested in studying, improving herself and learning about left-wing politics. She later becomes a Member of Parliament. Our narrator is the couple’s only child.

Early on she meets Tracey. Like her, Tracey is from a mixed marriage, though it is her father who is black and her mother white. They live nearby on an estate. Tracey’s mother brings Tracey up, the father being usually absent. When he does come, he is abusive. Tracey maintains that he is one of Michael Jackson’s dancers. We know his absences are at least in part spent in prison. Tracey is also very keen to be a dancer and the two girls take dance classes together. Tracey is generally more successful, not least because our narrator has flat feet.

What do we want from our mothers when we are children? Complete submission. our narrator comments. Tracey’s mother spoils her – she has all the toys and gadgets any girl could want. Our narrator’s mother, however, is strict. Our narrator is not spoilt and is expected to behave. Her mother does not approve of Tracey and her mother but more or less tolerates the friendship. Our narrator’s mother is competitive and she competes with Tracey’s mother, usually successfully.

While we follow the childhood of our narrator and Tracey, we suddenly jump forward. We learn that our narrator has gone to university. We later learn that she and Tracey have fallen out and, later still, why they have fallen out. Tracy has gone on to have a minor career as a dancer in a chorus. Our narrator initially works for YTV, a British MTV, which does not seem to be either Yorkshire Television or the Canadian cable channel. She has a fairly menial job. One job she is given is to look after Aimee who is visiting YTV to record a video. Aimee is a very successful Australian singer and dancer. She does not entirely kowtow to Aimee. Two weeks later she gets a phone call and is summoned to meet Aimee, who offers her a job as her personal assistant. She accepts. The book then continues with her relationship with Aimee as employer and sort-of friend, though still going back to her childhood.

The two women have a good relationship, with our narrator being a gofer, a shoulder to cry on and a sister to Aimee. Aimee has two children by two different men but the relationship with the men does not last long, nor does it last long with her her other men. Our narrator does have some influence on Aimee, e.g. in her choice of reading matter, but tends to keep away from her performances.

Aimee is into good causes and, in particular, wants to help the poor in Africa. Indeed, she later decides to adopt a small African country – she cannot remember the name though it soon becomes clear that it is Gambia – and spend her fortune on helping it. Our narrator is, of course, involved in this, though our narrator’s mother, by now an M.P., is quite scathing about Aimee’s plans.

Much of the second part of the book is spent on the African project. Our narrator spends a lot of time there, in the village, where she becomes friends with Hawa, a local woman, unmarried and without children like our narrator, with Fern, an expert on development who fails in love with our narrator and with Lamin, a local man, who has been educated and who is keen to move the west. Things get complicated when Aimee fails for Lamin and even more complicated when Aimee adopts a local baby (at great expense). The reference to Angelina Jolie is presumably intentional.

Cultural appropriation is a key issue today. This article appeared in The Guardian as I was writing this review. The idea is key to this novel. Aimee’s assistance to the African village, though well-meaning, often takes a very Western approach, as does her adoption of the African baby. Treatment of the poor is also referred to with one African person pointing out that, though they have a class/caste system in Africa, the treatment of the lower classes is far worse in the United States. The appropriation by whites of black music and dance is another example, referred to several times in this book.

This is not to say that Smith is damning whites and their behaviour exclusively. Absent fathers, female genital mutilation and the fact that the women do all the work in the African village show that she is well aware that bad behaviour and sexism are not unique to the West.

It is also not just about racism, sexism and bad behaviour. Smith is eager to show what the blacks can achieve. Mary Seacole and Jeni Legon are just two of the Blacks referred to – Legon several times – whose achievements are not as well known as they should be. Her mother becomes an M.P., though she is very scathing about the “other” black woman M.P., presumably Diane Abbott.

While the political/cultural aspects are certainly key to this book and are very integrated into the story – there is no loud preaching from Smith – the interest of the book goes well beyond that and, as in any good book, it is about relationships. The narrator-Tracey relationship and the narrator-Aimee relationship are both key to the book and very much show the ups and the downs. Also key, of course, is the problem of a person of colour (the narrator’s mother hates the term half-caste) living in a country (two countries, in fact, as she spends a lot of time in the United States) where they are in an ethnic minority and do face racism. Smith handles this intelligently and well, without shying away from the real issue.

I thought this was a first-class novel. It shows that Zadie Smith is now one of the foremost British novelists, both in term of writing a well-written, well-plotted novel, with carefully developed characters as well as bringing in a range of interesting ideas, firmly integrated into the story.

Publishing history

First published in 2016 by Penguin