“One night I dreamed of the Cotton Club: Cab Calloway was there, and Harold and Fayard, and I stood on a podium with a lily behind my ear. In my dream we were all elegant and none of us knew pain, we had never graced the sad pages of the history books my mother bought for me, never been called ugly or stupid, never entered theaters by the back door, drunk from separate water fountains or taken our seats at the back of any bus. None of our people ever swung by their necks from a tree, or found themselves suddenly thrown overboard, shackled, in dark water – no, in my dream we were golden!”
Gifted writer Zadie Smith released her fifth novel, “Swing Time”, last month to great anticipation by the reading world at large and by this book nerd in particular. Though the strength of writing and plot have varied across Smith’s previous works – White Teeth, in particular, was a spectacular debut that has proved hard to live up to – I considered this new novel a must read.
“Swing Time” is built on the pairing and juxtaposition of two mixed-race girls growing up in council housing in London. The girls are alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) inseparable and fiercely combative. Thrown together by a lifelong love of dance, one strives to develop her talent with a single-mindedness and egotism that is striking, while the other, the story’s narrator, seems to drift through life, presented as a smart girl with ideas but whose ideas fail to materialize or to result in passion of any sort.
“Swing Time” employs the unsettling mode of a first person narrator who feels hazier, less knowable than the characters around her. This unreliable witness isn’t hiding her flaws, but she is lacking roundness and depth. In fact, she is the only character in the 450 page novel without a name. Clearly this mode is central to Smith’s intentions, but the vagueness of the protagonist feels incomplete and is a bit off-putting.
Like all of Smith’s novels thus far, this story wades hip deep into the internal and external manifestations of race, the impact of culture across relationships, the strength and vulnerability of the feminine, and the turbulent tensions of motherhood. In all of these themes, Smith’s message is charismatic and full-bodied in a way her protagonist is not. Of mothers, our unnamed narrator declares:
“What do we want from our mothers when we are children? Complete submission. Oh, its’ very nice and rational and respectable to say that a woman has every right to her life, to her ambitions, to her needs, and so on – it’s what I’ve always demanded myself – but as a child, no, the truth is it’s a war of attrition, rationality doesn’t come into it, not one bit, all you want from your mother is that she once and for all admit that she is your mother and only your mother, and that her battle with the rest of life is over.”
Smith’s commentary on race is woven throughout the novel in ways subtle and not, but always with a nod to the complexities of race identity and its ever-present interplay with how one moves in and is treated by the world. Once again, our unnamed protagonist shows momentary pith and vim.
“Why did he think it so important for me to know that Beethoven dedicated a sonata to a mulatto violinist, or that Shakespeare’s dark lady really was dark, or that Queen Victoria had deigned to raise a child of Africa, ‘bright as any white girl?’ I did not want to rely on each European fact having its African shadow, as if without the scaffolding of the European fact everything African might turn to dust in my hands.”
“Swing Time” was a return to form for the Zadie Smith I have come to adore. Though not quite to the stellar heights of “White Teeth”, I put this book in the same division as it and as “On Beauty” (interestingly the two books referenced on the cover) and above both “Autograph Man” and “NW”. Smith is masterful when she is at her peak, her imagery crisp and strong like a balletic powerhouse. I leave this review with two more passages which, in my opinion, capture this gift, and in anxious anticipation of what comes next from the talented Ms. Smith.
“New York was my first introduction to the possibilities of light, crashing through gaps in curtains, transforming people and sidewalks and buildings into golden icons, or black shadows, depending on where they stood in relation to the sun. But the light in front of the mosque – the light I stood in as I was greeted like a local hear, simply for rising from my bed three hours after most of the women and children I lived with – this light was something else again. It buzzed and held you in its heat, it was thick, alive with pollen and insects and birds, and because nothing higher than one story interrupted its path, it gave all its gifts at once, blessing everything equally, an explosion of simultaneous illumination.”
“I remembered my own classrooms, dance classes, playgrounds, youth groups, birthday parties, hen nights, I remember there was always a girl with a secret, with something furtive and broken in her, and walking through the village…, entering people’s homes, shaking their hands, accepting their food and drink, being hugged by their children, I often thought I saw her again, this girl who lives everywhere and at all times in history, who is sweeping the yard or pouring out tea or carrying somebody else’s baby on her hip and looking over at you with a secret she can’t tell.”