In Zadie Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time, an unnamed narrator tells the story of her life growing up in London estate housing in the 80s, with her black Jamaican mother and white working-class father. She meets her childhood friend, Tracey, in dance class, and their relationship is discussed throughout the book. As an adult, the narrator starts working as the personal assistant to a famous pop-singer named Aimee, with whom she travels the world and works on a humanitarian project to build a girls’ school in a village in West Africa. As has come to be expected of Smith’s work, issues of race, class, privilege, and identity are presented with great nuance and clarity. Each well-thought out idea is contrasted against a variety of contexts and challenged by conflicting, equally valid ideas.
Tracey is one of the first characters we encounter in the book:
“There were many other girls present but for obvious reasons we noticed each other, the similarities and the differences, as girls will. Our shade of brown was exactly the same – as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both – and our freckles gathered in the same areas, we were of the same height. But my face was ponderous and melancholy, with a long, serious nose, and my eyes turned down, as did my mouth. Tracey’s face was perky and round, she looked like a darker Shirley Temple…”
From this early depiction, we see the gears that are in motion throughout the novel. They are cut from the same cloth, and yet their faces are enough to show how different they really are. As the story develops, we learn that Tracey is outspoken, provocative, imaginative, and a very talented dancer. The narrator, on the other hand, is quieter, more well-behaved, and not particularly good at dancing, the thing she most loves in the world. Tracey’s mother hopes to “get on disability,” while the narrator’s mother was a feminist who “dressed for a future not yet with us, but which she expected to arrive.” Tracey’s father is usually absent and described as a petty criminal, while the narrator’s is doting and made to parent. There are many more details like these, putting into stark contrast their individual situations, despite their shared race, neighborhood, and social class. I find that the success of this novel is in these well-balanced oppositions – they force us to see detail in their refusal to generalize.
There is a moment towards the middle of the book that shows this resistance to categorization with particular poignancy. The narrator, now an adult, meets her mother for lunch. Near the end of their meal, her mother looks out the window at the bridge over the Thames and says “those poor boys,” referring to two young men who had previously been thrown into the water by a group of teens, leading to one boy’s death. As the conversation goes on, her mother expresses sympathy for both, the boys thrown into the river and the teens who threw them in. The narrator describes for the reader the “grotesque sadness of their lives,” listing details about their growing up in the estates, being abandoned by their parents, getting kicked out of school or home, drug abuse, and sexual abuse, among others. The narrator gets agitated with her mother’s concern for the teens in question and says, “We can’t all be innocent” … “Somebody has to be guilty!” And then the chapter ends with:
“They didn’t have a chance,” said my mother quietly, but firmly, and only later, walking back across the bridge, when my bad temper had passed, did I see that it was a sentence moving in two directions.
This is at the core of the novel’s awareness. Nothing is simply a matter of guilty and innocent, but rather a series of factors and circumstances all leading up to a situation in a certain context. The bridge here also visually drives home the notion of the “sentence moving in two directions.”
When the narrator and her pop star boss, Aimee, start to make visits to the village in West Africa, the characters are contrasted against the new setting. They stop at the communal gardens to see the “limits of subsistence farming.” Upon arrival, Aimee immediately responds to seeing a field full of women at work: “Oh, I see what’s happening here… You gals get to really talk to each other out here. No men in sight. Yeah, I can just imagine what goes on.” And then the narrator reflects:
“I thought of how little I could imagine of what went on. Even the simplest ideas I’d brought with me did not seem to work here when I tried to apply them. I was not, for example, standing at this moment in a field with my extended tribe, with my fellow black women. Here there was no such category…”
The narrator had arrived with some expectation of feeling a kinship to the people of the village. Instead, there is no tribe of “fellow black women,” but rather many different unique cultural tribes and she is consistently treated as a foreigner. Aimee’s reaction – that of a wealthy Australian pop star – is so blatantly tone deaf, it’s clear that she doesn’t fully understand the reality of the situation. Neither of these notions is uncommon – both women have projected something onto the villagers in a way that is often tied in with race and privilege. What makes it so striking is that we are shown how women from two very different backgrounds can make the same mistake, even if it unfolds differently for each.
In Swing Time, Zadie Smith’s use of contrast and context allows her to draw out complex concepts with great clarity. This insight and awareness grants readers a nuanced understanding of the multifaceted nature of complicated social issues that is absolutely worth learning.