The unnamed narrator in Zadie Smith’s Swing Time met her best childhood friend Tracey at a Saturday dance class at a church near the London housing estates where the two girls lived. Both girls were poor and bi-racial, but their families were otherwise very different. The narrator’s mother was an ambitious black woman who spent her time studying, leaving much of the child care to the narrator’s white father. Tracey’s father was mostly absent, and her white mother doted on her, but didn’t maintain anything close to the high standards of the narrator’s mother.
As the girls grew up, they drifted apart, as often happens. It’s evident early on, however, that there some sort of complication would make the rift severe and permanent. Smith takes her time getting there, however, instead turning the story toward the narrator’s career as the personal assistant to a pop star named Aimee. The work is all-consuming, and when Aimee decides to make the education of African girls her cause, the narrator finds herself traveling to an unamed African country (probably Gambia).
There’s a lot going on in this novel, and Smith arranges the story in multiple timelines, swinging between the narrator’s memories of Tracey and her present life with Aimee and her work in Africa. For me, the childhood story, especially the girls’ fascination with dance was, by far, the most exciting. The girls spend hours watching dance routines from old movies, especially Fred and Ginger. When they discover Jeni LeGon, they’re entranced. Here was a tremendous dancer who looked like them, especially Tracey. Yet she’s surrounded by troubling African imagery. And then there’s that Fred Astaire routine that the narrator adored as a child and was shocked to realize as an adult was performed in blackface.
The story of dance provides lots of great material for exploring issues of race and appropriation, and it looks for a while like that’s going to be a major theme of the book. But them Smith broadens out to consider the ways those with wealth can simultaneously help and exploit those without it. These, too, are worthwhile themes, but I didn’t find Smith’s handling of them particularly compelling.
Part of the problem is that the narrator and Aimee are the only characters that really come to life in the African sections. And the sections themselves were sort of tedious. It was hard to get a read on what they were doing in Africa—or what they thought they were doing. There’s a lack of the kind of detail that made the childhood-focused chapters so wonderful. I ended up with a general sense that the work just wasn’t as helpful as it was meant to be but I can’t really explain why.
Even though I think this book has some significant flaws, on the whole, I did enjoy it. The parts that were good were so very excellent that they made plowing through the dull sections worth it. With six books from the Booker longlist read, I’d put it at the bottom, but it’s still ahead of anything on last year’s list.