Narrated by a young biracial woman, who remains unnamed, from a housing estate in northwest London, Zadie Smith’s Swing Time charts the course of a friendship. Our Narrator and Tracey meet at a dance class aged about eight. Tracey is a talented dancer; Our Narrator is a good singer but has hopelessly flat feet. Tracey is confident and straightforward; Our Narrator is inconsistent, passive, contrary.
The two grow up: Tracey strives for a professional career in theatre but never makes it out of the chorus line, while Our Narrator gets a glamorous, jet-setting job working as an assistant for pop sensation Aimee.
On the face of it, Our Narrator’s achieved the success Tracey was going for: she’s made it out of London, she experiences Aimee’s showbiz life almost first-hand. But Smith, of course, complicates this picture. Aimee’s philanthropic ambitions take her to West Africa, where she founds and funds a school for a rural village, but her glittering visions of educational excellence far outshine the unglamorous day-to-day support the villagers actually need, and do nothing to affect the structural reasons that put school out of reach for the young people there. Back in London, meanwhile, Our Narrator’s self-educated mother, freed of the burden of domesticity, makes a career for herself in local politics, serving the community she’s lived in most of her life.
Taiye Selasi’s review of Swing Time in the Guardian identifies change as a key theme of the novel, citing the various characters who pull themselves up by their bootstraps into a narrowly-defined version of success. For me, however, the novel’s key concern is not change but inescapability. Despite these characters’ outward success, there’s always something pulling them back, back; unavoidable structural factors or personality flaws that keep them trapped in their own heads, that prevent them growing as people or achieving contentment. Nothing that Our Narrator can do can shake Aimee’s self-absorption, her cultural and economic power. That inability to reach her employer eventually sends her back to her old London housing estate, where she began. The narrator’s mother’s career in local politics can’t undo the decades of resentment and intellectual stifling she experienced when the narrator was a child. Tracey can’t escape her class and the circumstances of her birth, and like her best friend she, too, ends up where she began.
This, I think, explains Our Narrator’s passivity, even her lack of a name: she’s propelled through life by forces beyond her control. She has no agency to change her fate. Her one significant act in the novel, at its climax, achieves nothing. Like most people, her choices and her future are circumscribed by factors she has no control over: most notably socioeconomic class, but also race and gender – all three influencing the power structures she, and we, move through every day.
I’m aware that this is all sounding Very Depressing. It isn’t, really: its inevitability is leavened by moments of genuine connection and understanding. And alongside its tracing of power structures goes some insightful exploration of the limitations of Western philanthropy, the importance of community and the legacy of the Atlantic slave trade. I enjoyed Swing Time a lot.