By Zadie Smith
Fiction is useful as a reminder of the truths under the surface of what we argue about every day and as a way of seeing and hearing the voices, the multitudes of this world. It is a way to help us refine our definition of what matters.
Searching for something to matter may be what drives the nameless narrator of Zadie Smith's Swing Time, a novel just named to this year's Man Booker longlist. She is a girl who grew up in '80s London, loves old musicals and dance, and is intimidated by three forceful women in her life. Her mother is a fierce warrior for social justice, spending more time in books and speeches than raising her daughter. Her father, a postman, handles the domestic tasks.
The closest thing she has to a friend is another girl she meets in a community dance class. Tracey is a natural dancer. Her home life is a mess, living with her white mother and making up stories about her black father, who is rarely around. Tracy also is a natural storyteller and targets the men who mean something to our narrator, sometimes out of maliciousness, sometimes out of pettiness. After one such act, the narrator loses contact with Tracey for years.
After floating through university, the narrator is hired by global pop star Aimee, who seems a lot like Madonna, as a personal assistant. With no life of her own, the narrator winds up in Africa when Aimee decides to open a school for girls there. The people that the narrator forms attachments with there do not provide any sense of homegoing, and she does not attempt to find any familial roots. Even going to the tourist trap that a former slave prison has become does not provide an epiphany. But in trying to do what she considers a just action, she finds herself cast out.
The narrator feels vague and rootless throughout the novel. That's often how she looks at life as well, not noticing the obvious until much later. The title, "Swing Time", is taken from the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical. It's a film she adored growing up but did not realize until years later that one musical number, a number she thought she had memorized, is done in blackface. As a person of color, it seems obvious that she would notice this her entire life.
The earlier lack of noticing and the eventual noticing are the way the narrator has lived her life.
At the novel's conclusion, there is a sense that now the narrator has lost important people and discovered an essential aspect of another, that she may have finally noticed something that she can use in her own life and sense of self. It is oblique, but that's the way Smith tells her stories.
Swing Time feels like two distinct novels. There is the coming-of-age story with Tracey and their parents, with instances of Tracey's casual cruelty detailed with precision. There is an intimacy in this story within the overall book, and a sense that because things happened during childhood and early youth, those things matter deeply.
The other story, of the narrator's life with Aimee and the extended Africa storyline, is more a story that takes on global ideas rather than personal ones. The descriptions of the cruelty that comes from a celebrity taking up a cause and fundamentally changing a community are well-drawn with the author showing the reader, rather than telling.
The strongest tie between the two stories is the narrator's realization toward the beginnning of the book that she "had always 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." After the flashbacks that make up the book, a colleague tells the narrator that being a fatalist "means something simple, like to say the future is already there, waiting for you. Why not wait, see what it brings?"
Perhaps the narrator has learned what she said earlier on: "The story was the price you paid for the rhythm." Perhaps she is ready to accept the rhythm and the price from here on out.
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