By: Zadie Smith
Publisher: Penguin Press (November 15, 2016)
No. of pages: 464
Reviewed by: Vickie Fang
Late in this novel, a central character is remembered for her honesty and warmth during deathbed visits.
I remember a friend of hers, a painter who had lost decades to the severe anorexia that eventually killed her, saying to Aimee, on what turned out to be her deathbed: “God, Aim — didn’t I waste so much fucking time!” To which Aimee replied: “More than you know.” I remember that stick figure between the sheets with the gaping mouth, so shocked she burst out laughing. But it was the truth, no one else had dared tell her, and dying people are impatient for the truth.
Swing Time is a novel about many things, racial and cultural identity, reinvention, community, girlish friendships, changing technology, the haves and the have nots. Most of all, however, it is about time itself, which rushes forward when we want it to stay still, doubles back on itself when we think we have escaped the past, slips away from us altogether if we don’t seize hold and make some vivid use of it.
Narrated by an unnamed young woman with a Black Jamaican British mother and a White British father, the book begins with an intriguing prologue that lets us know she is in some sort of disgrace as an adult and then settles into her lower class London childhood in which she is dominated by two of the three powerful female figures who will define her life. One is another brown-skinned girl in her dance class Tracey who is crude, garishly dressed, arrogant and demanding. Both girls love dance, but Tracey is far more talented. The other powerful woman in the narrator’s life is her mother, an aspiring intellectual, feminist, and keeper of a middle class aesthetic in a lower class neighborhood, a woman who considers it bad taste “to dress your daughter like a little whore.” Both mother and friend are hell bent on creating their own futures, while the narrator drifts through life. She stops dancing, goes on to a mediocre undergraduate career, becomes involved with controlling boyfriends, and is exposed to new ideas without really pondering them. “She said that a hundred years ago mankind was confronted with the question of space, but that the problem of the twentieth century was the simultaneous existence of different notions of time. I looked over at Rakim: he was making notes in the darkness, hopelessly stoned.”
Shortly after graduation, she goes on to become a personal assistant to a globally famous pop star — the third domineering woman in her life.
All the physical exercise, all the deliberate blindness, the innocence cultivated, the spiritual epiphanies she was able somehow to experience spontaneously, the very many ways she fell in and out of love, like a teenager — all of this came to seem to me effectively a form of energy in itself, a force capable of creating a dilation in time, as if she really were moving at the speed of light , away from the rest of us — stranded on earth and aging faster than her — while she looked down on us and wondered why.
The narrator’s story ricochets between the star’s dazzling race from venue to venue around the world, to a small village in West Africa where the star is building a school, to the childhood memories of Tracey and the narrator’s restless mother. It is a testament to Zadie Smith’s genius that every moment is lucid, vividly realized. We are there as Tracey’s defiant life slowly unravels or as the African village reveals its beauty and its poverty. We understand the lies the characters tell themselves and their desperate desire not to be erased. In the end, time is on no one’s side. It can not be stopped or evaded, but there are rare moments of transcendence by the women who remember who they are.