The tale of two girls that meet in a West-London dance class, Swing Time is Zadie Smith’s fifth novel. It was nominated for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, the only one of hers I’ve read, and given to me as a gift, so I wasn’t sure what I was getting into. The unnamed narrator and her friend Tracey grow up together in the 80’s. They are both working class, both mixed race, and so essentially receive the same starting point, but are, characteristically, strikingly different. The narrator is quiet, unassuming and driven, whilst Tracey is loud, confident, and overtly sexual. The girls navigate life and love alongside one another, until one escapes the council estate, and the other doesn’t.
We follow the narrator as she drifts further and further away from their shared beginning, becoming an assistant to white pop-star Aimee and accompanying her to Gambia, where the Madonna-esque figure (Like A Virgin Madonna, not actual Virgin and religious icon Madonna), is opening schools for girls and being culturally insensitive left, right and centre. What follows is a series of revelatory observations about race, class and gender, that’s impact is stunning.
Smith’s language is beautiful, and paired with her unique social commentary, paints both an emotional and visceral picture. Smith seems to have a somewhat cheesy habit of placing these revelations carefully at the end of chapters, delivering ‘zingers’ followed by the rest of the blank page, and business as usual on the next at the beginning of the following chapter, but I didn’t mind. It’s impactful, and gives you a moment in that empty space to consider what you’ve just read.
Swing Time’s exploration into race, particularly in Britain, must feel as succinct and well-articulated to PoC as her explorations into gender and class do to me, a working-class woman. She captures the essence of what it is to be female, working-class, and not knowing whether to crawl out of that is a success or a failure. Can leaving behind who you are, and where you came from, ever be considered a victory? The narrator seems to be the proud owner of a touch of survivor’s guilt, and it prompts us to ask ourselves – how do we characterise ‘success’? Swing Time shows us that nothing is black and white. With her lyrical prose, little London-isms and wry observations, Smith’s novel is a no-frills portrait of friendship and femininity.
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