‘It was the first day of my humiliation. Put on a plane, sent back home, to England, set up with a temporary rental in St. John’s Wood.’
In her London exile, our narrator remembers her childhood obsession with dance and musicals, in particular a Fred Astaire film – ‘Swing Time’ – from which she remembers the actor dancing with three shadows. She catches a showing of the film and realises that Astaire performs this dance in blackface, a detail erased from her memory, a jarring note which prefigures aspects for the novel which address how – perhaps – perceptions of blackness might be changing.
From here we travel back to the narrator’s childhood and meet Tracey, with whom she shared a love of dance. Unlike the narrator, however, Tracey has a natural talent for movement and a passion to make this her life. As the children grow up, they inevitably grow apart. The narrator starts a career in the burgeoning video industry, eventually becoming personal assistant to a global music star – ‘Aimee’ – and becomes wrapped up the star’s efforts to help an African village and adopt one of its children. Meanwhile, the narrator’s mother has been beavering away at her education and activism, eventually becoming an MP. One of her constituents is Tracey: her career stalled, she now has a family and a council flat and her struggles force her to haunt her MP for help. Now in exile, for reasons revealed much later in the novel, the narrator picks up these pieces of her life.
This first part of the novel, set in 1980s London and showing us the turbulent lives of two young women growing up together are a delight. Smith’s writing has the light step of the ballerina, skipping across the page, effortless yet precise, graceful yet bold. and not without humour:
‘…the true answer to ‘How was school today?’ was ‘There is a mania in the playground for grabbing vaginas”
Like Smith’s last novel, ‘NW’, ‘Swing Time’ works in symmetry with itself, ending where it started. What it doesn’t have is the playful, experimental structure of ‘NW’, which is a disappointment. Similarly, while I can see why Smith needed the character of ‘Aimee’ this character and the African village plotline was tedious and the only miss-step. Aimee is so obviously moulded on Madonna and yet so bland a cut out…it could almost be a piece of bad fan fiction, albeit minus the sexual fantasies and the giddy fun which, oddly, Smith recognises when she recounts the odd tales the two young girls cobbled together, here, the story of Tiffany the ballerina:
‘Tiffany jumped up high to kiss her prince and pointed her toes oh she looked so sexy but that’s when the bullet went right up her thigh.’
The saving grace of the ‘Aimee’ chapters is that they are interspersed with meetings and updates on the narrator’s mother, who looks like ‘Nefertiti’ and carries with her force for self-improvement which leads her to university, local politics and finally becoming an MP. Mother is a great character – one which shows how some women feel the pressure to have it all is too much and so must either between child or career. Choosing self-improvement, this woman embodies many of the left-wing political pressures and ideas which powered many into politics throughout the 1970s and 80s and which, in the 21st century, seems to be floundering. Awkward, irritating but so true.
It’s also interesting how Smith raises questions about the contextualisation of our perceptions of colour. ‘NW’ was, by some, seen as a novel which was ‘colour blind’ in that the character’s colour is barely pointed out. In ‘Swing Time’ Smith takes this one step further and looks at how we view colour is changing with perceptions and definitions changing – perhaps showing that the ‘great big melting pot’ of Blue Mink’s classic is coming to pass? For example, Tracey has a white mother and black father; the narrator’s are the other way round, but the narrator notes
‘Our shade of brown was exactly the same – as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both – and out freckles gathered in the same areas, we were of the same height.’
Later in the novel, when the narrator is working with Aimee in the village which she has ‘adopted’, one of the Africans comments:
‘So they are saying ‘Even though you are a white girl, you dance like you are a black!’ I say it’s true: you and Aimee, both of you – you really dance like you are blacks. It is a big compliment, I would say. I never would have guessed this about you!’
Motherhood is addressed by the main characters address in some form or other: Tracey, whose career has stalled, perhaps due to having had children; the narrator’s Mother whose maternal feelings seem to be set to one side in favour of her development and career; in Aimee whose stardom allows her to pick and choose a child at will and finally, the narrator who acts as confessor and observer for these women who juggle and struggle with their lives and desires and who, at the end of the day, comes to realise that she and Tracey had it right all those years ago: despite all our struggles, all you really need is love and dancing:
‘She was right above me, on her balcony, in a dressing gown and slippers, her hands in the air, turning, turning, her children around her, everybody dancing.’
A slight disappointment – but there is always something joyful about Zadie Smith’s work which makes it an essential read.