“The phone on the kitchen wall rang and rang, but I was warned not to answer it, and to keep my own phone switched off.”
Swing Time begins with its unnamed narrator hiding out in a temporary rental flat in northwest London after losing her job and her privacy. After 3 days she steps back out into crisp autumnal London and chances on a film event at the Royal Festival Hall.
The darkness of the venue had been meant as a distraction from her humiliation, but she suddenly sits up when the director plays a clip from her favourite childhood film, Swing Time. Fred Astaire tap-dances with three silhouettes behind him.
“I felt a wonderful lightness in my body, a ridiculous happiness, it seemed to come from nowhere..
“A truth was being revealed to me: That I 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.”
When she gets home, the narrator googles the clip of the routine she so treasured as a child and understands – confused – for the first time, that she is seeing Fred Astaire dancing in blackface.
And so the book begins – at the story’s end – with a glimpse back to childhood joy mis-remembered. It is a novel about friendships that change and can change us. It deals with growing up mixed race, betrayal, class, motherhood and childlessness.
Two brown girls meet at a ballet class in 1982, holding their mothers’ hands.
One – Tracey – has the dancing talent to be a serious star. The other – our narrator – lacks her friend’s technique, though she loves to sing at the piano before class begins.
The narrator’s mother: “She wore her hair in a half-inch Afro.. Hair is not essential when you look like Nefertiti” – takes Saturdays ‘off’ from her husband and daughter to study Sociology and Politics with the Open University. She can never offer the ‘complete submission’ the narrator considers a mother’s duty.
Tracey’s mother is white, overweight and entirely submissive. Her absent father may or may not have danced with Michael Jackson.
The friendship with Tracey is an evocative snapshot of childhood. The farfetched tales we told and half-believed as children are frequent in Tracey’s conversation, though the coldest lie – or cruelest truth? – she tells about the narrator’s father grabs and shakes the friendship by its heart when the girls near adulthood.
Tracey’s gift for dance takes her onto the stage, while the narrator tastes fame as the assistant to an international celebrity.
The narrator, betrayed by Tracey’s lie, commits her own betrayal of her pop star employer Aimee by revealing an uncomfortable truth. The three women’s lives only ever entwine briefly, when the two girls dance as children to one of Aimee’s records; emulating her sexiest choreography in a performance whose repercussions are both immediate and long-delayed.
The internet plays an important role in the novel, as it’s the means through which Tracey taunts the narrator and later her mother from the confines of her poky Willesden flat. It’s also the medium through which superstar Aimee’s secret is leaked.
As you’re reading the book, there’s plenty to google from chapter to chapter. From the unforgettable ‘Thriller’ video – the rhythm of which pumps throughout the tensions of Tracey’s friendship, to Sara Forbes Bonetta – freed from slavery to become Queen Victoria’s god daughter – who we learn about from a boyfriend exploring his own experience of race.
There’s also the Dahomey Amazons to research – an all-female military regiment of the African country now known as Benin – as well as Jeni LeGon (who danced with Fred Astaire) and whose performances Tracey re-packages as her own.
The novel flies between London, New York and an unnamed country in rural West Africa, and as the modern and historical references crop up in the story, interlaced with mentions of laptops, iPhones and the glowing blue light of a Samsung flip phone, it seems entirely fitting to set down the book between chapters and tap these unfamiliar names into the search bar.
As the narrator reflects on her own heritage – her Jamaican mother’s struggle to better herself, her white post-man father’s reluctant goodbye to his wife – the reader is learning too.
Most importantly; it’s a novel to get your toes tapping. There’s the Mandinka rite of passage; the Kankurang (when an anonymous dancer jiggles and shakes beneath the woolly fronds of a flame-coloured costume, celebrating the beginning of adulthood), the brazen cultural appropriation of Aimee’s world tour and a west-end performance of Show Boat – where Tracey steals the scene using only talent and a broom. Dance and its history leap and sashay across Swing Time’s every page.
About the author
What appealed to me most about Swing Time were the significant similarities between the main character’s life and Smith’s own. You will always have me at ‘based on a true story’.
Zadie Smith was born in 1975 in Brent, north-west London to a Jamaican mother and an English father.
In knowing this a reader can choose to believe one of two equally pleasing possibilities: the first is that there really was a Tracey, with her ‘ridiculous nose’ that ‘went straight up in the air like a little piglet’, the cruel childhood friend whose taunts are somehow moreish if she’s on your side.
The second is that Zadie Smith has the kind of imagination which breathes fictional lives into her own lived past, allowing unreal characters to spit on true events and beloved family with lies and hate. Either way the story is an intriguing one.
Zadie Smith (who was born Sadie, but swapped in the more electric Z at 14) lives between London and New York with her husband and two children. In an interview with the New York Times she called writing ‘a kind of stupidity’.
She said: “It’s a way of experiencing time.. of slowing life down.”
The novel certainly feels like watching a slow-motion dance routine; giving its reader time to frown and ponder the intricacies of the footwork and the interactions of its four starring women, but its comic timing and knack for blending the real with the imagined are a million miles from stupid.