Two girls meet in dance class as 7-year-olds, but only one of them, Tracey, has “rhythm in her ligaments.” As adults the childhood friends are estranged, one a professional dancer, one an executive assistant for a powerhouse pop star. The story alternates between girlhood in poverty-riddled North London, and adulthood (also in London, New York and West Africa). In her fourth novel Zadie Smith explores the politics of race, identity, and class through the lenses of female friendships and music, weaving a suspenseful and surprising story.
The narrator of “Swing Time” goes unnamed and spends her life searching for identity. Her father is a postman, a simple man who cannot keep up with the mental acrobatics of his wife. Her mother is a feminist and a philosopher—a Marxist—who believes in social change, and earns her degree (doing homework at the kitchen table in the evenings ), and later becomes a local politician and advocate for equality. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve got flat feet,” she tells her young daughter “because you’re clever and you know where you came from and where you’re going.”
Our narrator doesn’t feel confident in who she is or where she’s going; she feels confident when she spends time with Tracey who, over time, pulls farther away from her childhood friend. Our narrator loses her moorings when she discovers a truth about her father, secret—or maybe she is the secret. Then, 23-years-old and working in television broadcasting for YTV, she meets Aimee. Perhaps part of Aimee’s magnetism is the pop star’s certainty in her own being—in her own purpose.
Aimee doesn’t believe in the ability of churches or charities or governments to give aid without hidden agendas. In her view only individuals with enough wealth (and therefore power) can affect true change, can create freedom and equality and justice. By her logic “wealth and morality are in essence the same thing…the more money a person had, then the more goodness—or potential for goodness—a person possessed.” This logic, and Aimee’s commitment to global poverty reduction, leads her foundation to sponsor a school for girls in a remote African village. Only Aimee, or people like Aimee, with wealth and global reach, “the kind of people able to build a girl’s school, in a rural west African village, in a matter of months, simply because that is what they have decided to do,” can use so many resources flying over what become “decorative but essentially useless objects.”
Aimee allows Smith to explore several class related themes: the sheer absurdity the GDP of an entire country nestling inside that of an individual; the equally absurd, out of touch, notions of help coming from the Western world (laptops, for example, when the village has waited more than two decades for electricity, or teaching the theory of Evolution during a malaria outbreak); and the unintended consequences of their help (the perceived wealth of the village links with Aimee’s presence, so local municipalities refuse to pay teacher salaries at the boy’s school, or to fix roads, or to help clean the toxic groundwater).
The juxtaposition between the narrator’s life in New York or London and village life also allows Smith to question the very idea of wealth, of what has actual value versus what has only assigned value. She is also able to delve into what wealth means for an individual holding it: “Under God’s eye, we have our difference but also our basic equality,” a state not seen by villagers as shared by Westerners, who see and treat lower classes with contempt. There are different definitions of wealth, and dignity is one form.
The book’s title comes from a Depression-era film starring Fred Astaire, and is one of the films Tracey and our narrator watch as girls. Our narrator sees something in Tracey, something she also sees in the young girls attending Aimee’s school decades later: “All that fire with so little kindling, it was of course easy to despair.” So much passion exists world wide, in so many cases with no place for that passion to go. How does identity grow without kindling?
The boys the narrator knew growing up wore dispassion as their identity: “it was a defense against loss, which seemed to them inevitable anyway.” Our narrator wanted to feel a identity when visiting the village, but she did not stand: “in a field with my extended tribe, with my fellow black women. Here there was no such category. There were only the Sere women, the Wolof, and the Mandinka, the Serahuli, the Fula and the Jola.” She was other, and something to be pitied, like “a calf whose mother died in the having of her.
When visiting the monument to her tribe’s enslavement she “experienced it not as an exceptional place but as an example of a general rule. Power had preyed on weakness here: all kinds of power-local, racial, tribal, royal, national, global, economic-on all kinds of weakness, stopping at nothing, not even at the smallest girl child. But power does that everywhere. The world is saturated in blood. Every tribe has their blood-soaked legacy: here was mine…I couldn’t make myself believe the pain of my tribe was uniquely gathered here, in this place, the pain was too obviously everywhere, this just happened to be where they’d placed the monument.”
Smith is an incredible writer, her facility with language, ideas, and the human soul is a humbling thing to behold. In the films the book’s narrator and Tracey watch as young girls, whose plots are operatic and outrageous, “the story was the price you paid for the rhythm.” “Swing Time” has both.