Zadie Smith’s transcontinental new novel, Swing Time (Penguin Press), is an introspective commentary on female friendship, girlhood, class and identity. Smith’s first novel since 2012’s NW follows the trajectory of two mixed-race girls from a London public housing estate, Tracey and our never-named narrator and protagonist. They meet at a dance class as young girls, and though not instantly friends, the two are drawn to one another, the pairing described by the narrator as “an invisible band strung between us, connecting us and preventing us from straying too deeply into relations with others.”
While their mutual love of dance and similar racial background serves as a catalyst for their friendship, the two girls couldn’t be more different. In dance class, Tracey shines, an immense talent with a fiery personality and reckless tendencies; the narrator, though passionate about dance (as evidenced by her obsession with studying classic 1930s musicals; the novel shares its title with the iconic Astaire/Rogers film of the same name), is flat-footed, self-conscious and prudent. Tracey’s home life is permissive with her white single mom, while the narrator has a more stable two-parent household governed by a intellectual, striving Jamaican mother and a decidedly unambitious but doting white father.
The story is told in shifting perspectives, ping-ponging between their lives as children to young adulthood. Tracey eventually achieves her single-minded pursuit of making it to the West End stage, while our narrator travels a less self-assured path to college, then on to a job at a hip British music television network, where she meets pop superstar Aimee and is swallowed up into the singer’s whirlwind life of jet-setting, wealth and privilege.
Aimee later decides that she wants to open up a school for girls in West Africa (like our narrator, the exact country is never named but clues point to The Gambia) and is dispatched ahead to a rural village. There, she finds herself ensconced in village life, and forms a bond with the spirited young schoolteacher named Hawa, and the quiet, dignified Lamin who serves as her guide. On the continent we get the sense that perhaps she’s finally found something, a sense of belonging as she rapturously states “here is the joy I’ve been looking for all of my life.”
Tracey and the narrator remain companions well into their early twenties until their friendship ends unceremoniously. Only through their first love dance, do the women seem to find a sustainable connection both jointly and individually.
Swing Time has a few such moments where our narrator has epiphanies and gleans moments of self-awareness through her ideas and relation to dance. The most compelling aspects of the novel are those inward-looking moments our narrator shares. Though told from her highly subjective (and maybe a tad unreliable) point of view, she makes keen, honest and sharply observed examinations of herself and those around her; her aloofness and the distance she places between herself and others is evident: “…I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own,” she writes. “I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.”
With the novel being grounded in the complicated yet formative friendship between two women, full of the narrator’s personal sentiments and memories, I wished we’d gotten some insight on the relationship from Tracey’s point of view. As Swing Time ends with a final glimpse of Tracey, “turning, turning, turning, her children around her, everybody dancing,” we are only left to ponder how meaningful—or not—she found the childhood friendship that served as the skeleton for Smith’s latest work.