Luckily, my mum has always demanded I read books that open my mind to new perspectives, that pique my interest in history, politics and culture from around the world. Thus, this meant that when the book lists relating to Black Lives Matter circulated, I had read the majority of them already. But, of course, there is always more to read and learn, a new author to discover and support. As reading had received little attention during my final year of university, I set about reading and re-reading the books on these lists: Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage and others, eventually led me to Zadie Smith’s Swing Time.
Zadie Smith was born in London to a Jamaican mother and a British father, attended local state schools and then the University of Cambridge. Swing Time is her fifth novel, published in 2016, and draws inspiration from Smith’s childhood love for dancing. It tells the story of two girls, both with a Jamaican and a white parent, growing up in neighbouring estates in London, who meet at the local church’s dance class. Tracey is confident, loud, at times rebellious and irrational, a talented dancer. The unnamed narrator is observing, thoughtful, clever, self-doubting, with less dancing talent and dominance.
Both face family problems and the pair eventually grow apart as they become older: Tracey goes to stage school and tries to make it on the West End, however, always stays in the estate she grew up in, eventually with her own children. The narrator leaves for university and becomes the assistant of international pop sensation Aimee, who takes her around the world – tour and life in Europe and New York, philanthropic projects in an African village. At times, Tracey and the narrator collide: in a hospital, at a dance show, through the narrator’s mother – but these interactions are always slightly hostile and show that although they used to be best friends, they have become fundamentally different. Tracey’s parents remain largely absent, whereas the narrator’s mother is overbearing at times, desperate for a different life to that on the estate. She later becomes almost estranged – the narrator only discovering her mother is in a hospice from her neighbour.
Swing Time is a multifaceted story. It is about growing apart. It is about defying society’s expectations and breaking free. It is about succumbing to expectations. It is about parental pressures. It is about race. But most of all, it is about identity. The narrator struggles through life trying to find hers, seemingly always overshadowed by others. At dance class and school, it is Tracey with her natural dancing abilities and her early puberty. At university, it is her boyfriend, who has little respect for her opinion and all the more for his. In later life, it is Aimee who dictates who she dates, where she is and what she does. The villagers in Africa, who she works with for Aimee, make her question her understanding of race and where she fits in. Her mother never understands her life and never deems her expectations met.
As the narrator grows up, all of them become accessories in her self-discovery. It is an introspective story, without especially dramatic events. Instead, it is simply the portrait of a woman growing up. This makes it a comforting read, but it also makes it lengthy and less gripping. Apart from the narrator, the development of other characters seems sudden and random as their own struggles are hardly discussed – often because they and the narrator become distant, only interacting by chance.
Smith jumps between timelines and locations, making the story disjointed at times, but also showing how the narrator’s childhood always impacts her adulthood, however hard she tries to escape it. This is one of the main messages of the book: where you start will always be a part of you and it will shape you, in one way or the other.
Swing Time is certainly a book worth reading, but it is a slow story at times. It really could be about anyone – the narrator’s specific characteristics of being Jamaican and British, living on an estate and her family situation, all fall into the background. There is, however, also something to be taken from this – at the end of the day, everyone is the same and should not be hindered by their background. The narrator’s relationships with others equally aren’t the focus. This is where the story could have been developed further and given more insights, potentially deepening more of the themes rather than scratching at their surface, helping us better understand the narrator’s actions as an adult.
Words by Sophie Kiderlin
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