An Unfamiliar Reality
Zadie Smith’s latest novel takes us through the lives of two girls, on a journey from a childhood in London to West Africa and back
Review by Izzy Ashton
‘Swing Time’ is a novel of familiarities. It centres on a world that some readers may be part of, others still may recognise and some are mere outsiders to. The story pivots around a friendship between two girls, the unnamed protagonist and her best friend Tracey, following the trajectory of their lives. Their friendship is intense, volatile and at times destructive, a dynamic that does not seem to alter, even as the girls grow apart and their lives take on different trajectories.
Zadie Smith, whose novels include the award-winning ‘White Teeth’, writes powerfully and insightfully about real life, basing characters around people who she has met or knows within her own life. And ‘Swing Time’ feels no different.
The girls in ‘Swing Time’ are continually played off against one another. Dance and music bring the two together but it is only one of them, Tracey, who has the talent to pursue their shared dream. We as a reader are only given insight into the protagonist’s mind, although through that we are able to glimpse aspects of Tracey’s life as the protagonist so sees it.
The protagonist is the daughter of a self-taught academic and a post-man father, pushed into university by her mother who does not allow her daughter to forget where she came from. Tracey meanwhile is idolised by a mother who appears to lead a fairly sedentary life. It is Tracey who goes on to dance, who leaves the neighbourhood for the glamorous life of the stage.
The protagonist leaves university as many others have before her: disillusioned and uninspired. A chance meeting with a internationally renowned pop singer gets her a seemingly idyllic career path as the singer Aimee’s PA, travelling the world and picking up the pieces of Aimee’s life as they go.
That is the nature of this novel. It is about illusions, about deceptive appearances and pretence. No life is actually as soundly perfect as on the surface it may seem. The characters unravel, as the story unfolds, and none more so than the protagonist herself.
For me, the characters do not seem to develop into people who, as a reader, you come to either love or hate. I felt relative indifference towards the downward spiral of the protagonist’s life as she seemingly wasted it away babysitting the celebrity. I was annoyed by her total lack of ambition and drive, irritated by her desperate desire to be anyone but herself.
But I think that may be the point, and the power, of Smith’s writing. Her characters are so normal, so everyday, that they don’t really stand out off the page. They don’t run through your dreams as others have done; they don’t punctuate your thoughts after you put the book down.
They allow you to glimpse the mundane reality of another’s life, a quality that Smith’s writing must be admired for. It seems familiar but in the same breath wildly unfamiliar, an unnerving feeling for the reader.
It is dance that links every thread within the book, from the bedrooms of the girls growing up in London to the village grounds in West Africa to the stage on which Aimee performs. Dance reveals each character’s true self and it is in those passages that we are able to see the protagonist for what she truly is.
‘Swing Time’ is a darkly comical, daringly truthful account of a friendship, a story of “brown girls” growing up in London, struggling with their own identities and a comment on celebrities ‘helping out’ in countries that seem to need a helping hand. You are privy to a glimpse into their world before being escorted swiftly out of it.
It is a novel that will not leave you satisfied or relieved once you reach the end. But it is one that will challenge your preconceptions and leave you wishing you could understand more about our complex and distorted world.
“Swing Time” by Zadie Smith, Hamish Hamilton at Penguin Books, November 2016