Zadie Smith’s 5th novel hops between 4 decades and 3 continents, unpicking every aspect of what makes our identity along the way, and throwing in more musical and dance references than you could care to shake a stick at. ‘Sprawling’ is the word. ‘Slightly unsatisfying’ are another two.
Swing Time follows a nameless narrator who has drifted through life in the slipstream of other people – somehow avoiding decisions, growing up, or developing a point of view on anything:
“A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.”
As the novel opens, our narrator is hiding out in London from a scandal of her own making, looking back at her life and wondering just how she got here: her childhood in North London, she is the daughter of a black mother and white father, with a best friend who is talented dancer who thinks nothing of ruining an old man’s life for no particular reason; her job as a personal assistant to a Madonna-like superstar; her friendship with Hawa – a teacher in a school in Africa that her superstar-boss has opened.
This is a massive setting – but it is hardly a plot. The only thing that keeps us turning the pages is Smith’s brilliant writing, acute observations, and the fact that we don’t know what kind of scandal our lead character is heading for – sleeping with the boss? Or with the bosses husband maybe?
But the scandal is hardly the point. What matters are the things that make up who we are: our parents, friends, childhood, peers, boyfriends, culture, community, society, race, class, formative experiences – the myriad of things that make up a person. No stone is left un-turned as Smith gets to grip with her subject matter.
A school in Africa provides a counterweight to the life the narrator experiences in London and New York. Here we meet Hawa – the life and soul of a backwater village. Hawa’s life has an inevitability about it – destined to get married and have children and no more. She could leave the village for Europe, but why would that be any better? From Hawa we learn that in Africa everything is fluid – race and class mean something else here. Even happiness is a far cry from what we’re used to – not only defined differently, but achieved differently, too.
For all of this, it’s still a bit disappointing. A narrator who stands for nothing, spends her life meekly observing other people, and never takes a moral stand is hardly worth caring for, is she?
Despite this, Smith’s razor sharp writing and perceptive social commentary keeps things ticking along. Not to mention the musical references – everyone from Cab Calloway, to Fred Astaire, to Michael Jackson gets a mention (you’ll be humming Minnie the Moocher for days after you finish reading).
So what do you think? Have you read it? Did you like it? Would you recommend it? Have you read anything else by Zadie Smith that you’d recommend?
Let me know in the comments!