'Swing Time' is Zadie Smith's virtuoso tale of class, race, and friendship

The novel explores the lifelong relationship between two young women who meet in a dance class and then live out a complicated mix of love, jealousy, competition, and misunderstanding.

Swing Time By Zadie Smith Penguin Press 464 pp.

Two girls meet in ballet and spend the rest of their childhood in a troubled pas de deux in Zadie Smith’s virtuoso new novel, Swing Time.

Tracey and the unnamed narrator were the only two biracial girls in their Saturday dance class and were drawn together “like metal filings to a magnet,” the narrator thinks back to those days in 1982. In the present, she’s reeling from a public scandal and the sense that she’s wasted the first half of her life.

“I’d lost my job, a certain version of my life, my privacy,” she says after flying back to London in disgrace. “A truth was being revealed to me,” she says, “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.”

The novel explores the lifelong relationship – a complicated mix of love, jealousy, competition, and misunderstanding – along with race, cultural appropriation, what it means to be a strong woman, and the careless side effects of celebrity do-gooderism. But it does it all with the élan of one of the 1930s hoofers that Tracey and the narrator obsessively watch on VHS tapes – Tracey to learn the steps, the narrator for cultural understanding and something else: “elegance attracted me. I liked the way it hid pain.” The narrator finds early dancers of color, like Jeni LeGon and the Nicholas Brothers, and Tracey and she memorize their routines. But the narrator, who has flat feet, is a born wallflower – more comfortable in the role of cultural observer than active participant. Tracey, however, views center stage as her birthright.

When obsessively watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the movie that gives the novel its title, the narrator thinks about the famous quote that, “He gives her class, she gives him sex. Was this a general rule? Did all friendships — all relations — involve this discreet and mysterious exchange of qualities, this exchange of power?”

Both girls live in a housing development, but the narrator’s mother is determined that they aren’t going to stay there. Her Jamaican mother, who is getting a degree and would rather read than cook or do laundry, looks down on Tracey’s mom, who appears to have no other ambition than to spoil her beautiful daughter to the best of her limited ability.

“Her mother was blamed – mothers usually are – but I’m sure her mother barely saw or knew the half of it,” the narrator thinks when the girls become teenagers and Tracey starts dressing in ways that show off her dancer’s body. “She was still asleep when Tracey left for school and not home when she got back. She’d found some work finally, I think she was cleaning an office block somewhere, but my mother and the other mothers disapproved of her employment almost as much as they had disapproved of her unemployment. Before she had been a ‘bad influence,’ now she was ‘never home.’ ”

The narrator’s father, who works for the postal service, is the narrator’s caregiver and source of comfort. Tracey’s father, a small-time criminal, is worshipped by both mom and daughter – even though he only brings chaos on the rare occasions he shows up. Both girls are envious of the other’s parents: The narrator covets Tracey’s tutus, Barbies, and twice-baked potatoes (to say nothing of her dancing ability), while Tracey is jealous of the narrator’s dad in ways that have serious repercussions later. School is fraught for both of them, as it is for all the kids who live in their development.

“I can see that our mothers must have seemed a little careless when, informed by a teacher of some misbehavior in the playground, they would — instead of reprimanding the child — begin to shout at the teacher. But we understood our mothers a little better," the narrator thinks. "We knew that they, in their own time, had feared school, just as we did now, feared the arbitrary rules and felt shamed by them, by the new uniforms they couldn’t afford, the baffling obsession with quiet, the incessant correcting of their original patois or cockney, the sense that they could never do anything right anyway.”

After both girls make it out of school in the 1990s – Tracey to the West End to perform in the chorus, the narrator to college, then to work at a TV station and as a personal assistant to an Australian rock star, Aimee, whose bio resembles a Madonna mash-up, including young lovers and foreign adoption. The novel ping-pongs between an unnamed West African country, where the narrator “helps” Aimee build a school for girls in a Muslim society, New York, and London. Tracey’s life, meanwhile, stays put.

The tragic nature of both friends’ lives unspools slowly and in retrospect, as the adult narrator realizes things that she missed along the way, from the realization that Astaire was performing one of her favorite routines – out-dancing his shadows as “Bojangles of Harlem” – while in blackface, to dark secrets of Tracey’s childhood that she and her mother could have uncovered but somehow didn’t. “And so we got something like the truth, quite like it, but not exactly,” she thinks after the music school’s gay accompanist is blamed for another’s crime.

The two friends spend years apart but can’t quite extricate each other from their lives or the sense that each is the only one who really understands the other. After the narrator’s disgrace, Tracey emails a long-ago recording of the two girls along with one line: Now everyone knows who you really are.

“It was the kind of note you might get from a spiteful seven-year-old girl with a firm idea of justice,” the narrator thinks. “And of course that – if you can ignore the passage of time – is exactly what it was.”

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