Time Swings Widely
Zadie Smith’s new novel, Swing Time, and its dense relationship to time, place, and identity.
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It is hard to write a review of a novel about brown women, white women, black women, dance, time, loneliness, and love. It is hard, but it is necessary, because if there is one thing that will get many of us through the next four years, it is art: appreciating it, creating it, continuing to give it life.
Swing Time by Zadie Smith is a magnificent, mature novel, but one that reads differently than the others previous books (which have all been incredible, each in its own way). The most noticeable thing about Swing Time, at least for a longtime reader of Smith’s work, is how much of it defies the old writing workshop adage — it tells as often as, if not more than, it shows. Paragraphs can last up to a page in length, the narration is first person, and there is a Jamesian quality to some of the sentences that is unexpected for Smith, who is an excellent wordsmith and always has been but who has tended to give her characters voice through their words more often than through their internal narration. All of which is to say that Swing Time is surprising — not that it is anything less than excellent.
An unnamed narrator is not quite at the heart of the novel — that belongs to her childhood best friend, Tracey — but she is, nevertheless, the vehicle through which we learn about the other characters, the passage of time, and the ideas the book grapples with. She is in her early thirties at the time of her narration and is looking back over the years of her life, going back and forth between her childhood and her recent past. She is mixed-race, her mother Jamaican and Black and her father British and white. Her best friend Tracey is also of mixed-race parents, but in her case, her mother is white and her father Black (and also Jamaican). The two girls recognize something in each other in the dance classes they attend as little girls, and they stick together, though their home lives, the very values they are being taught, seem to be incredibly different. Tracey is poorer — she lives in a worse London estate than the narrator — but her mother spends all her money on pleasing the child, on her dance classes, on her material happiness. The narrator lives in a better estate with an “aspirational” mother — that is, her mother goes back to school, attains a couple degrees, and begins a life of public service as a local politician.
The narrator in her recent past is the personal assistant to Aimee, a superstar who feels like Madonna, Bjork, and Cher rolled into one. She is incredibly rich, powerful, and naïve, and her latest venture has been to open a school for girls in an unnamed West African country (speculating according to the information given, it seems to be the Islamic Republic of The Gambia) that has a President-for-life, female circumcision, and not enough educational opportunities for women.
The plot threads its way through time, staying true to its title and swinging back and forth like a clock that hasn’t been wound, the pendulum’s distance between the narrator’s present and her past getting closer and closer until finally, at the end, the clock stops, the past has caught up, the present is all that remains. On the way, we watch the narrator’s relationship with Tracey dissolve as they grow older and their paths diverge — Tracey to attempt a career in dance, the narrator to become Aimee’s assistant. A lot happens, but it’s told expertly by Smith and her narrator and needn’t be repeated here.
Instead, the novel’s themes bear examination, as they are complex and look at the difficult relationship people have with their skin color, their origins, and the very wide gap that can come between those two things. The narrator is the daughter of a Jamaican woman and a white man, and so is much lighter skinned than the former and darker than the latter. When in college, she is lectured to often by her boyfriend, Rakim:
He had a cool vintage Panthers poster on his wall, in which the big cat looked about to leap out at you, and he spoke often of the violent life of the big American cities, of the sufferings of our people in New York and Chicago, in Baltimore and LA, places I had never visited and could barely imagine. Sometimes I had the impression that this ghetto life — though it was three thousand miles away — was more real to him than the quiet, pleasant [England] seascape in which we actually lived.
Rakim, as it turns out, is full of shit, which the narrator’s tone suggests in its irony (“I thought he was the most beautiful man in the world,” she tells us. “He thought so, too.”). But it doesn’t change the fact that the narrator does take a grain of truth from his speechifying, which is her assumption that because of her skin color, because of her connection to Africa by way of her mother, by way of Jamaica, by way of the slave trade, she will feel at home in the West African country she visits for Aimee’s half-baked attempt at making real change happen.
But once she’s there, the narrator realizes — over time, for very little in this novel is hasty, just as life rarely is — that she doesn’t really belong. She doesn’t get the sense of homecoming that Granger, the gay African-American bodyguard who works for Aimee, feels. She doesn’t feel the righteousness of her mother’s convictions or a sense of “her people” in those around her.
I was not, for example, standing at this moment 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, the last of whom, I was told once, grudgingly, I resembled, if only in basic facial architecture: same long nose, same cheekbones.
Still, she finds relationships there, though she continues to misunderstand even the woman she is closest to there, Hawa, who is some ten years her junior. When Hawa — who is the daughter of university professors — announces that she will be marrying an ugly man, a tablighi (a member of a Sunni Islamic group that proselytizes a return to true Sunni Islam), the narrator is confused and upset. How can this vibrant young woman who always has the best gossip, who is a teacher at the school for girls, who may, it is whispered, even be uncircumcised, who is the daughter of intellectuals — how could she marry such a man and give up on… on what? That is what the narrator is left to ponder, for after all, not everyone has a better path to take, a range of choices at their disposal. Hawa wants to leave the village where she works hard, both on housework and childcare and in the fields; she doesn’t want to be left there to care for so many others anymore. Instead, it is implied, she will journey with her tablighi husband, have adventures, see more of the world than she expected to.
This difficult relationship with choice and who has them is especially fascinating as time in the novel is treated as a privilege. The narrator spends years catering to Aimee rather than to her own desires and needs, floating through the years of sameness, but in West Africa she is faced with the fact that time works differently for these women who are not her “fellow black women.” They do not waste time, she discovers, but fill it with work, with talk, with a vim and vigor for life that she seems to have left behind in childhood. Which doesn’t mean they’re content with their lot or don’t forge new pathways for themselves, for as Hawa proves, they do.
Tracey, the narrator’s childhood best friend, haunts the novel: to what extent her choices were her own, is her life somehow socioeconomically and racially predestined, inevitable due to mysterious but presumed childhood PTSD, is she just a paranoid fuckup, or all/none of the above. She opens and closes the narration, her presence in the narrator’s life a hint, perhaps, to the road not taken, an alternate timeline. There is a sense that a whole novel could be written about Tracey alone — indeed, each of the characters begs to be explored further — but Smith only gives us the narrow track of one life, the narrator’s, which as this long review shows, is not so narrow at all.