The sentences in Swing Time, Zadie Smith’s new book, are like dancers. They build rhythmically, one clause piling on top of another, the commas like elegantly pointed toes delineating each step. Here is the narrator as she watches Fred Astaire dance with his own shadows:
I felt a wonderful lightness in my body, a ridiculous happiness, it seemed to come from nowhere. I’d lost my job, a certain version of my life, my privacy, yet all these things felt small and petty next to this joyful sense I had watching the dance, and following its precise rhythms in my own body. I felt I was losing track of my physical location, rising above my body, viewing my life from a very distant point, hovering over it. … A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.
Swing Time is a book about dance, and about female friendships, and about living life as a shadow. It is also a book about race and privilege. And all of those elements are present in that early description of how it feels to watch Fred Astaire dance — as well as in the embarrassed, understated shock of the mixed-race narrator as she realizes that Fred Astaire’s shadow dance is a minstrel show and Astaire is in blackface.
In Smith’s lovely, elegant voice, all of the different elements she’s playing with interweave themselves seamlessly into a deceptively simple whole. The result is as intricate and beautiful as a ballet.
Swing Time’s heart is the relationship between the narrator and her childhood best friend
Swing Time is constructed in a kind of reversal of Astaire’s shadow dance. At the center of the story is the shadowy, amorphous narrator, who never can come up with any kind of identity of her own, not even so much as a name; then, spiraling out away from her, are three incandescently bright women.
There’s the narrator’s mother, a Jamaican-born intellectual who pushes her listless, unmotivated daughter through school and college, out of the poor housing estate where she grew up, and into a middle-class existence through sheer force of will. There’s the white, Madonna-like pop star Aimee, who hires the narrator to be her personal assistant, who is as blindingly charismatic as she is fecklessly unaware of her own privilege, and around whom the narrator bases her entire adult identity.
And finally and most importantly, there is Tracey, the narrator’s childhood best friend. They meet at dance class and recognize each other immediately as being of the same kind, because “our shade of brown was exactly the same — as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both.” But Tracey, unlike the narrator, is a truly talented dancer, one who moves with what Smith describes as “a kind of kinetic joy” — and unlike the narrator, she lacks an upwardly mobile mother to push her out of the estate.
Jumping back and forth through time, the novel tracks our narrator through her childhood of avidly watching dance without being able to replicate it, her friendship and all her falling-outs with Tracey, and her time as a young adult working for Aimee.
It’s here that Swing Time acquires something close to a plot: Aimee, now in the vanity philanthropy stage of her career, wants to build a school for underprivileged girls in Africa. To that end, the narrator travels between an impoverished village in Togo, where she is considered white and wealthy, and Aimee’s elaborate New York home, where she is considered poor and black.
Smith has preserved her uncannily precise eye for the subtle distinctions of class and race that preoccupy her characters, and for the way those distinctions shift across communities; that skill is on full display here. But all the while that the book is tracking nuances of class and race, Swing Time’s narrator cannot stop brooding over her childhood with Tracey, and the ways in which she and Tracey betrayed each other.
The shadowy narrator can be frustrating — but that’s a feature, not a bug
The narrator is a deliberately vague presence. She delights in effacing herself: She thinks Astaire’s habit of thinking about his own dancing in the third person is “a very elegant attitude,” and adopts it herself, trying to think of herself as a stranger. When she finds herself tokenized by Aimee’s staff, she enjoys the experience of being treated like a fictional character.
Early reviews of Swing Time have found the narrator frustrating. Smith has previously demonstrated such a gift for vibrant characters with bright, distinctive voices that for her to give us such a subdued narrator seems almost perverse. But the narrator’s slightly sulky reticence, her refusal to feel very strongly about anything in particular, is what provides a backdrop for the women around her to acquire the full potency and tragedy of their stories. It’s an aesthetic trick that works like a great dance partnership, and the narrator knows it:
I became fixated, too, upon Katharine Hepburn’s famous Fred and Ginger theory: He gives her class, she gives him sex. Was this a general rule? Did all friendships — all relations — involve this discreet and mysterious exchange of qualities, this exchange of power? Did it extend to peoples and nations or was it a thing that happened only between individuals? … What did I give Tracey? What did Tracey give me?
At their most basic level, the other women give the narrator a story. The narrator gives them a witness. And the narrator’s shadowy nature is less a void in the middle of the stage than it is a deliberate, artful elision, one that clarifies the movements all around her.
This quality dances with all of Swing Time’s gorgeous sentences, forming a pattern that you can’t quite explain or describe but that is nonetheless dazzling. The result is a terrific book from one of our greatest novelists.