Every once in a while, a novel reminds us of why we still need them. Building upon the promise of White Teeth, written 16 years ago, Zadie Smith’s Swing Time (Penguin Press) boldly reimagines the classically English preoccupation with class and status for a new era—in which race, gender, and the strange distortions of contemporary celebrity meet on a global stage.
It’s 1982, and a pair of 7-year-old girls from neighboring housing estates meet in dance class in northwest London (where Smith was raised and now lives with her family part of the year): “Our shade of brown was exactly the same—as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both.” They bond over Top Hat and Thriller; they make up dance routines and stories. But while Tracey possesses a pink Barbie car bed, feet like “two hummingbirds in flight,” and a virtuoso instinct for provocation, the unnamed narrator has an austerely beautiful, Jamaica-born intellectual mother who disdains frivolity: “Doesn’t matter if you’ve got flat feet, doesn’t matter, because you’re clever and you know where you came from and where you’re going.” (Click on Image to order )
My Brilliant Friend–style, the book contrasts the girls’ diverging fates: Tracey wins dance prizes, attracts boys and drama, and dreams of a stage career, while the college-educated narrator interns at a music-video network, becoming the personal assistant to a pop star named Aimee, whose fortune is larger than the GDP of the West African country in which she builds a girls’ school. It’s in Africa that the novel announces its ambitions, with unsettling scenes of power and powerlessness in close proximity, such as when Aimee procures “a baby as easily as she might order a limited-edition handbag from Japan.”
Can any author top Smith on the symbolic power of clothes? Beginning with the initial purchase of ballet shoes—the narrator’s are a “pale piggy leather,” while Tracey’s are deep pink satin with ribbons criss-crossing up the ankle—they tell a story of their own. Stolen lingerie, a fake nose ring, and Dr. Martens all make cameos. (Here’s the narrator hooking up at a dance club: “It seemed wrong for goths to kiss so we bit gently at each other’s necks like vampires.”) But also: A scarlet hijab held in place with a glittering pink pin. Fashion announces our affiliations and aspirations, but what we choose to wear also has a way of betraying us, of revealing the very things we mean to conceal.
The novel swings back and forth in time to reveal that the tales we tell as children aren’t so different from the identities we choreograph as adults. On the way, Smith touches on everything from Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil to One Laptop per Child; reaching further back, she revisits a history of insidious Hollywood racism: Fred Astaire in blackface as Bojangles of Harlem; the circumscribed career of African-American MGM dancer Jeni LeGon, who is surely due for a biopic. As the narrator, insulated by glamour, glides through life on private jets, increasingly distant from her family or any other connection, she begins to resemble the ideal dancer of her youth, someone “from nowhere, without parents or siblings, without a nation or people, without obligations of any kind.”
Swing Time asks the big questions for the post-Brexit era: As the old hierarchies fall away, how do we forge our allegiances? What do we owe those left behind? Rarely has a novel felt so relevant. The anxieties that fueled Smith’s last novel, NW, here acquire amplitude and complexity, as well as, perhaps, the added depth charge of a parent’s empathy (the novel is dedicated to the author’s mother, Yvonne, one of its early readers). No detail feels extraneous, least of all the book’s resonant motif, the sankofa bird, with its backward-arching neck—suggestive less of a dancer than of an author, looking to her origins to understand the path ahead.