The original Swing Time is a film clip of Fred Astaire dancing on stage at a cabaret, with a giant screen behind him, in which three shadow versions of himself attempt to keep up with his energy, his footwork, his dance. In the end they give up and walk off leaving him alone to continue, enrapturing his audience.
In Zadie Smith’s opening to her Swing Time, the protagonist is sitting in London’s Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank of the Thames, having walked aimlessly from the apartment she’s been hiding out in, opposite Lord’s Cricket Ground in St John’s Wood into the city, crossed the river and spontaneously bought a ticket to an event.
During this “conversation with an Austrian film director” they show this clip, which she is very familiar with from her own childhood obsession, and watching it now, she realises how much she has been a shadow in the lives of others, never taking centre stage in her own life, despite the strong passion for music and dance she has had within her all along.
“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.”
Structured in seven parts, from Early Days, Early and Late, Intermission, through Middle Passage, Night and Day, Day and Night to Late Days the novel shows the family life and friendship of the protagonist and her friend Tracey, two girls who take dance classes together when they are seven years old, who live on adjoining North London housing estates, with mothers who aspire for their children to have a different experience than their own and while some may judge them otherwise, they do the best they can to make that so.
“At this early stage Tracey and I were not friends or enemies or even acquaintances: we barely spoke. Yet there was always this mutual awareness, an invisible band strung between us, connecting us and preventing us from straying too deeply into relations with others.”
Tracey is outspoken, the more talented dancer and ambitious, she masks her curiosity and disappointments with malice, telling her friend, they had things “the wrong way around”.
Tracey’s dance ambitions take her to a special school where she can develop those skills, while her friend reluctantly follows the more academic route her mother has paved for her, ignoring her own passion for singing those old-time songs and the early days Fred Astaire and Jeni LeGon (see her in the video clip below) dance moves. She studies media and looks for admin jobs and for a short time is drawn back into Tracey’s world as a stagehand, when Tracey lands a role in a West End musical.
“With everyone else it’s the dad” she says, and because I knew this to be more or less accurate I could think of nothing more to say. “When your dad’s white it means…” she continued, but at that moment Lily Bingham came and stood next to us and I never did learn what it meant when your Dad was white.
During her first media job, she has a chance encounter with an ambitious Australian pop star, who later requests her to work for her. The singer attempts to bring her out of her reservedness by taking her somewhere where she feels most herself, a bike ride to Hampstead Heath. Her life is thus viewed through the lens of a woman of extraordinary means, who has a certain kind of power to do and to have anything and anyone she wants, a life that is facilitated by those she employs to keep her from the untidy reality of real life.
It reminded me of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend in its premise of the female friendship, two girls who’ve known each other since childhood, who are simultaneously attracted and repelled by each other, who separate but never entirely sever their precarious connection, toxic yet familiar, fulfilling an unhealed need to be witnessed in their entirety.
The plot takes our narrator out of London to New York and into an African country where the singer wishes to make a difference to girls’ lives by opening a school. Sending her in advance and on numerous occasions, she sees and experiences aspects of life there at greater depth than her employer and becomes increasingly frustrated by what others fail to see, that which she is unable to adequately communicate.
It has not been her place to be forthright (a weakness that while it stayed that way served her well), however she can’t ignore it, especially not since her mother began to realise her own aspirations, rising up out of her situation, educating herself as an adult and becoming a local politician/activist with strong views on West African dictatorships and celebrities that adopt babies from poverty-stricken countries.
If London was unreal, if New York was unreal, they were powerful stage shows: as soon as we were back inside them they not only seemed real but the only possible reality, and decisions made about the village from these locations always appeared to have a certain plausibility while we were making them, and only later, when one or other of us arrived back here, and crossed this river, did the potential absurdity of whatever it was become clear.”
It’s a rich, exciting, thought-provoking novel, even if being the employee of a pop star may sound unreal. In effect, it is more about whether escaping one’s roots and elevating oneself in or associated with fame or success equates to a sense of fulfilment, or whether one is empowered by finding and following one’s passion. Our narrator is attracted to those who appear to her to be true to themselves, focused and unafraid to express it.
As she did with NW, Zadie Smith creates a strong sense of place and community, and through her choice of characters shares many poignant insights and realities of mothers and daughters and the effect the past exerts on the choices they make in the future.
I admit, I do love this novel all the more for having lived in North London for eight years, and in the latter years, in an estate in Kilburn, so I remember these streets and this community from a period in the late 1990’s that brings it alive more so than if it were set in a city I’d never lived in. It’s not necessary to know it, but if you do, it’s like the icing on the cake! I’ve read all Zadie Smith’s novels except The Autograph Man and I’d say now that Swing Time is my favourite. I hope to see it make the shortlist of the Man Booker Prize 2017.
Brilliantly executed, highly recommended.