Waltzing With Zadie Smith

On her new novel, and stories told through time.

Zadie Smith’s new novel, Swing Time, pays homage to the 1936 movie of the same name starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, alongside other old-school musicals: Show Boat, South Pacific, Ali Baba Goes to Town. These are watched on old VHS tapes by the never-named narrator and her sometime friend, Tracey; two brown girls who meet at age seven in 1982 in Thatcher’s Britain at a dance class filled mainly with white kids.

Lily Bingham, their white friend, proudly declares herself to be “colour blind,” only seeing what is “in a person’s heart,” but she takes offense at a dance video with only black people on the cover. She can never really understand what it is to be a brown girl, in love with old musicals and the tradition of tap-dance; a tradition which, the narrator tells, us came about on the docks of slave ships as Irish crew and black slaves danced creating a hybrid form which would later be the speciality of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Jeni LeGon — a young black dancer in the 1930s and ’40s, less well known than her peers, but whose story becomes crucial to Tracey and the narrator.

The girls grow up in sync like a pair of dancers learning their moves, only the narrator has flat feet and cannot dance, at least not as well as Tracey. They have all the passion of childhood friendship, with its jealousies, secrets and power-struggles. Tracey is confident and cruel, while the narrator slips into the role of timid sidekick — passive, and there for Tracey to pick up and put down when the mood takes her. The dynamic reminds me of the knowing Baba and the easily led Kate in Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls. In that book the girls are tied together by coming from the same small town. In Swing Time the girls are tied by their love of dancing and show tunes, and their status as neither white nor black, but brown — belonging and not belonging to both communities.

I wanted to love this book; I’ve grown up with Zadie Smith. I picked up White Teeth in a bookshop as a teenager and found myself unable to stop reading. Irie, who gets a passing cameo in Swing Time, spoke to me, of a set of insecurities I knew. We were different — I was an underweight white kid pretending I wasn’t on the spectrum (my diagnosis was clearly a mistake) while Irie was a fat mixed-race teenager, but no one before had expressed so eloquently the loneliness and shame of being a teenage girl who is not desired. I loved Irie’s family too. Their warmth, vulnerability and craziness rang true. Smith was an idol to me, in the way that the dancers in the VHS tapes watched and rewatched by Tracey and the narrator in Swing Time were to them. I would go back over her work in wonder, trying to figure out how she did it, how she made it so seamless. To not love a Zadie Smith novel felt unnatural, so when I couldn’t get into Swing Time at first I was hurt.

The narrator’s relentless passivity jarred, and her lack of name or even allusion to a name, puts a distance between her and the reader. It’s a longstanding literary technique, used in Du Maurier’s Rebecca to great effect, but in Swing Time our protagonist’s namelessness disturbed me. I found myself wondering what name her parents, who met at a Socialist Worker’s Party meeting, would have given their only child. I ended up self-centeredly giving her my own name, but I still found Tracey with her ‘cruel expression’ and knack for riling folk, more interesting. Late in the novel, the adult narrator is horrified by a series of emails sent by Tracey, but also impressed: “[I was] stunned too, by how well she wrote, never boring, not for a second, her dyslexia and grammatical errors were no hindrance to her: she had the gift of being interesting.”

Young Tracey is a great romancer. She brags of her father being a backing dancer to Michael Jackson. This, she tells her friend, explains his many long absences — and the gun hidden in the bathroom, which he needs to defend the singer. The gun does exist, but for less glamourous purposes. Tracey’s mother inspires no such romantic notions. The narrator describes her with “tin hoops in her ears, the triple skin, hair pulled back tight, a cigarette hanging from her mouth.”

In contrast, the narrator’s mother is a romantic parent; a beautiful and ambitious Jamaican woman filled with political passion and a desire to change the world for the better. Smith writes, “She could never just sit there and let time pass, she had to be learning something. She might arrive at the beginning of class with say, The Black Jacobins in hand, and by the time I came over to ask her to swap my ballet shoes for tap she would already be a hundred pages through.” She is fierce, and at times comic, digging a hole in the middle of the communal land to grow vegetables, only to hit clay and decide instead of have a clay modelling workshop on the balcony to allow the local children to express themselves, stating this was her intention from the onset. The narrator and her mother are different as can be, one personified by timidness, the other by passion — it’s telling that later in the book, when the narrator takes a politically ideological but personally dubious decision, it is the mother who applauds her.

It took a while for me to understand that the narrator’s passivity — the lack of importance she gives her own story almost until the end — was what defined her, what makes her interesting. Her porousness as a character was as compelling as the brashness and passion of those surrounding her. As an adult, she works as a compliant assistant to a cavalier pop-star called Aimee. It’s maddening to watch her taking Aimee’s bullying. Yet Aimee, like Tracey, is compelling. She has big ideas, and she moves the story forward to Africa, where she wants to build a school.

Here the story alternates between a London at once familiar to the reader from earlier parts of the book and alien in its modern incarnation as Aimee’s London (luxurious but weirdly bland), and Africa — in all its newness, energy, and impenetrability. The latter comes at the reader dancing in the persona of the kankurang, “a wildly swaying orange shape, of a man’s height but without a man’s face, covered in many swishing, overlapping leaves. Like a tree in the blaze of a new york fall which uproots itself and now dances down the street.” The ideas about race explored in London come to a fore in Africa, where the narrator goes to see relics of the slave trade, of which her mother had told her so much, but she feels almost nothing.

I tried to put myself in a meditative frame of mind. To picture the ships in the water, the human property walking up the gang-planks, the brave few who took their chances and leaped into the water in a doomed attempt to swim to shore. But every image had a cartoon thinness to it, and felt no closer to reality than the mural on the side of the museum that showed a strapping, naked Mandika family in neck chains being chased out of the bush by evil an Dutchman.

The revelation that Jeni LeGon had a horrible time in Hollywood, hits our narrator far harder, being more real to her, relating directly to her own experience . She has always known about slavery, but LeGon’s isolation is not only an example of a more recent cruelty, but also one which shatters the oldest illusion she shared with Tracey. “I’d wanted to believe that friendship and respect could have existed…but Astaire never spoke to LeGon on set, in his mind she not only played the maid, she was in actuality little different from the help.”

This passage, late in the novel shows the pain of the narrator’s individual disillusionment, and by this point I loved the porous, sensitive, pliant narrator with her peripatetic life and infinite uncertainties having found more questions, instead of answers. The differences between life in the African village where Aimee builds the school, and the London life known to the narrator, are stark. While the narrator shares a running joke with a local schoolteacher, whispering, “Still no baby?” each time they see one another as reflection of the pressure on young women to have children, it suddenly occurs to her that there is a decade between them. She is thirty-two, while Hawa, the teacher, is still in her early twenties. The village also has its differing religious factions, with diametrically opposed ideas about dance, and the ever-present peril of “the back way” to Europe, which involves travelling across Africa then taking a boat from Libya to Italy — a route that sees thousands perish, from drowning or hypothermia, every year.

It is Africa, though, where the narrator begins to change, grow and see the unmitigated lease of Aimee’s selfishness. Africa brings out the controlling, covetous side of the singer who has never been denied anything. Aimee takes a young African lover, considering only how lucky he is to have her. She wants to own a beautiful, sleepy, black African baby who is passed to her to hold — she buys the child from her poverty-stricken parents.

This monstrosity brings the narrator to reflect on her friendship with the intoxicating Tracey and their shared love of music. Badly let down by the unfeasibly prosperous world of Aimee, the narrator returns to the London she knew as a child where she ends up at Tracey’s front door, long after their paths diverged as teenagers. We learn Tracey did something the narrator considers unforgivable, hurting not only the narrator (who has been hurt by Tracey all her life) but attacking her imperfect, but ultimately loving, parents through the narrator’s own deep-seated insecurities about their relationship. That the narrator’s Dad used to adore Tracey and she him, makes this betrayal even worse, though not in the way that the reader is earlier led to believe.

The adult Tracey continues to do immeasurable harm to the narrator’s fragile family, but when she reappears, she retains a magnetic power over the reader and narrator alike. She has danced and lived and made mistakes which have kept her on the same corridor of flats where she and the narrator grew up, but I found myself questioning whether Tracey’s mistakes — the conspiracy theories she so readily believes in, the poison pen letters she sends — are really that much worse than the narrator’s wasted years in the thrall of a narcissistic singer. The story leaves our narrator near the flat where she grew up, ready to go and speak, once again, to her old friend. She’s grown up a lot, and takes heroic, almost catastrophic action that is so contrary to her passivity that I liked her for it as I wondered what the hell she was doing. It’s sort of the equivalent of that friend who never loses it, suddenly losing it spectacularly; ugly, cathartic, healing and frightening all at once.

It was this act that made me like the novel, even as I recoiled in horror. I liked the complexity of the narrator and her fear of life which was as endearing as it was infuriating. I didn’t feel passionate love I felt for White Teeth, but I appreciated Swing Time with something more complex and adult. I liked the way the book moved back and forth through time as though this too were as fluid as space, and it will remain with me. It’s a slower dance than Smith’s earlier work, more languid, softer; but it requires more skill to dance slowly and still keep the rhythm, tell the story.