Swing Time: Book Review

Each novel by Zadie Smith seems to be an independent stylistic experiment, from her initial omniscient narrators in the White Teeth (2000) and On Beauty (2005), to her polyphonic experiment in NW (2012), to her latest work Swing Time (2016), where she relies heavily on a loosely autobiographical, quite biased first-person narrator. The story is set in 2008, when the unnamed narrator is in her 30s and has been recently fired, for reasons to be disclosed afterwards, from her position as the longtime personal assistant to an immensely famous pop star named Aimee, the Madonna of Smith’s fictional universe. The masterful weave of the novel is what makes it a truly wonderful read, from grits to glamour and then back again, the narrator pulls herself out of the estates and into Aimee’s luxurious life only to be sent to an African village and then, in the end, back to her mother’s apartment. Swing Time is a female bildungsroman that tackles love, career, friendship, and motherhood, and in the end, after it makes its arabesque-like full circle, it gives the narrator another chance to make things right and to find a place where she truly belongs. 

Born and raised in the public-housing estates in Northwest London in the 1970s and ‘80s, the child of a white father and a highly driven black mother, the narrator manages to rise above the stereotypical expectations only to end up alone, reflecting on her choices and seeking repentance. The novel is named after Fred Astaire’s musical Swing Time since it was a clip from this very musical that triggered the narrator’s epiphany:

‘I saw all my years at once, but they were not piled up on each other, experience after experience, building into something of substance – the opposite. 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.’

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Thereafter, Smith proceeds to interweave the stories of the narrator’s mother, of Aimee, and two of her friends, Tracey and Hawa through several time- and plot-lines which make the sum of the narrator’s life. As she eventually concludes, she has lived vicariously, as a shadow, first through her earliest friend Tracey, who had had all of the dancing talent that the narrator herself lacked, then she faintly shadowed her mother’s academic success, and, finally, she proceeded to work as a shadow assistant for Aimee, which eventually allowed her to meet Hawa, a vivacious 20-something African woman who chose a path much different from the narrator’s but which should lead to the same goal – freedom. It is in this village that the seeds of discord between Aimee and the narrator are sown and, soon, within the blink of an eye, she ends up alone, in the street, with a blank slate upon which she can start building again, and this time, instead of looking into the distance, she heads back home, into the arms of those to whom she has always belonged. 

© 2017 Erna G. – All Rights Reserved

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