Swing Time by Zadie Smith
Smith’s novel is a compelling if unsettling story about a young woman growing up around the turn of this century. The unnamed protagonist is a “brown” girl, and struggles with what that means, should mean, could mean. She loves to dance, but isn’t good enough—or privileged enough—to dance for a career.
Her life is also bound by her upbringing. She has a complicated relationship with her mother (a political activist and MP), her father (a postal worker), and her neighborhood and especially her friend Tracey. However much she leave these old relationships behind, they never leave her.
Throughout the book, the protagonist has a complicated relationship with race, history, and identity. She struggles to live up to her own ideas of her own mixed heritage and visible “brownness”,; and also those of her black activist mother, neighbors, teachers, and everybody else. If not a dancer, what should she grow up to be?
She wanders though a collegiate “media studies” program, gets a job as an assistant in pop music TV in the overheated 90’s, and ultimately flukes into a gig as a personal assistant in the posse a gigantic pop star. The warped world of stardom takes her to New York, around the world, and most significantly for her, to West Africa.
Within the wild, weird world of the megastar, she develops few relationships, at least until they get involved with a vanity development project in Africa. There, she finds connections with the people in the village, though it is far from easy or trouble free. She also learns that, however much she likes them or wants to be liked by them, there are huge cultural gaps.
This is a satisfying complicated story, evoking a certain amount of empathy with the confusion and sadness of the protagonist and the people around her. It is especially sad to see her difficulties with her mother, and with friends in London and Africa. We want her to find happiness, if not love, and she doesn’t.
Bad things happen. People are unhappy and angry and crazy and poor and sick. People make mistakes. Lives are destroyed.
Yet it is not all bleak. Good things happen, people fall in love. There are good people, who are trying to help each other. There are children, and they are loved to distraction, as children should be.
But, in the end, story remains unresolved in many ways. “Unresolved” doesn’t even begin to describe it. The causes and consequences of events are not really clear, and, in the end, the protagonist is left alone in the world, with we don’t know what future ahead.
I found this is an excellent story but not really a pleasant one. I so wanted a better life for everyone, and not only didn’t we get that, but we didn’t even get a bad ending.
- Zadie Smith, Swing Time, New York, Penguin Press, 2016.
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