In the first musical number in the classic RKO comedy film “Swing Time”, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance with grace and finesse; towards the end of the number, they even leap across the fence-like borders which circle the floor.


Hamish Hamilton – PRH, 2016

Astaire and Rogers barely seem to touch the floor, but in Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, even the dancing characters spend more time stumbling across barriers than cascading across them, even tripping across the everyday.

Zadie Smith offers readers the necessary details to add an additional dimension to their reading of the novel, so we needn’t be familiar with the film.

Swing Time functions adequately as a story of female friendship and a mother-daughter tale even without giving the film a second glance.

But taking it in context, with the film cast as a backdrop like a childhood memory, the novel becomes brilliantly complex, each subplot multi-dimensional.

Readers who are willing to take a closer look will be rewarded substantially.

“Look closer at that Cotton Club, she said, there is the Harlem Renaissance. Look: here are Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson. Look closer at Gone with the Wind: here is the N.A.A.C.P. But at the time my mother’s political and literary ideas did not interest me as much as arms and legs, as rhythm and song, as the red silk of Mammy’s underskirt or the unhinged pitch of Prissy’s voice.”

The narrator’s mother urges her daughter to take a closer look, but she remains disinterested. Nor has the narrator ever visited her mother’s family home in St. Catherine, Jamaica.

But perhaps ‘never’ and ‘endless’ are not so far removed as they might seem. “For me the film had no beginning or end, and this was not an unpleasant sensation, just a mysterious one, as if time itself had expanded to make space for this infinite parade of tribes.”

Despite all the re-viewings of “Swing Time” however, the narrator’s memory of the film is incomplete. And as often as she and her friend Tracey watch these dance numbers, they do not interpret them the same way either.

Tracey, for instance, is quite offended by the narrator’s fondness of the video “Stormy Weather”, which Tracey feels unfairly and unkindly excludes white people. “We wouldn’t like that, would we?” Tracey demands. And our narrator is left “going over and over this curious lecture in my mind, wondering what she could have meant by the word ‘we’.” Because of course all of the other videos which the girls watch could be described as having unfairly and unkindly excluded black people. Yet, Tracey dreams of being Ginger Rogers, even though she’s clearly on the other side of the colour line.

Perhaps Tracey imagines another version of herself who might be as successful, and as included, as worthy of belonging, as Ginger Rogers. A shadow version perhaps. Just as the narrator remarks upon the three shadowed figures in the “Bojangles of Harlem” number (a tribute/mockery performed in blackface).

Readers are urged from the novel’s opening pages to look out for shadows. “I saw all my years at once, but they were not piled up on each other, experience after experience, building into something of substance – the opposite. 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.”

The narrator’s experience of herself as a kind of shadow is echoed in her experience working for a white dancer who seems to have achieved the kind of success that her friend Tracey dreamed of having for herself. “But why should she get to take everything, have everything, do everything, be everyone, in all places, at all times?”

This sense of being excluded is explored in other aspects of the story too (notably when the narrator travels to Africa, for work).

“At this Lamin laughed, heavily sarcastic, and Hawa’s cousin replied sharply to Lamin in Wolof – or perhaps it was Mandinka – and Lamin back to Musa, and back again, while I stood there, smiling the awkward idiot grimace of the untranslated.

And of course one cannot discuss exclusion without considering powerlessness

“Did all friendships – all relations – involve this discreet and mysterious exchange of qualities, this exchange of power? Did it extend to peoples and nations or was it a thing that happened only between individuals? What did my father give my mother – and vice versa? What did Mr. Booth and I give each other? What did I give Tracey? What did Tracey give me?”

And, perhaps more to the point, the nature of power and control.  “There can’t be no understanding between you and me any more! You’re part of a different system now. People like you think you can control everything.”

The illusiveness of power. The quiet nagging of being unfairly judged. “The power she has over me is the same as it has always been, judgment, and it goes beyond words.”

Zadie Smith’s Swing Time is an invitation to look closer. To peer at the barriers and decipher a means of crossing or dismantling or settling alongside.

“And so we got something like the truth, quite like it, but not exactly.”

Is this one on your TBR? Have you read Zadie Smith before?