Swing Time – Zadie Smith

This is an incredible book: well plotted, rich, wise and gripping.

It’s the story of the first three or four decades of the life of the unnamed narrator, a black girl from Willesden Green, and her relationship with close childhood friend Tracey, her Mum and the people she meets in her job as a personal assistant to Aimee, a Madonna style superstar.

Both the narrator and Tracey adore dance as young girls and are inseparable, but have very different lives as they grow up. Tracey tries to become a dancer, getting bit-parts in shows but never really making it, ending up a bitter single Mum with four kids and no money. The narrator doesn’t follow her dancing dream, goes to university and ends up working as a personal assistant to Aimee, flying around the world to make Aimee’s life easier and, in particular in the book, to an unnamed country in Africa where Aimee is paying for a new school to be built, Bono philanthropy-style.

Apart from the great writing and characters, to whom there is real depth and complexity, the book explores some strong and clear themes:

Class. Both Tracey and the narrator grow up on the same estate, but one of them stays there and the other leaves. Are they still the same class, of different? Tracey certainly thinks the narrator has changed and got posh. The narrator’s Mum saw Tracey’s family as a different class in the first place. Maybe they were never the same, or class is not the only determinant of life chances.

Upbringing. Whereas Tracey’s Dad was in prison and often missing, the narrator’s Mum is an aspiring intellectual and politician. Not always focused on her daughter, she inculcated a sense of interest and broad aspiration in the narrator that Tracey never had. Hence she went to university while Tracey stayed in Willesden.

Race. the narrator and her family are black, as is Tracey, which is a source of discrimination in her younger years. When she spends time in Africa with Aimee, though, the whole question of race, belonging, nationality and ancestry becomes pertinent. The narrator feels English and is perceived as such, and her experiences there make her question her identity in new ways.

Ambition. There’s a nice contrast between Tracey and the narrator. Encouraged by her Mum, Tracey follows her dream of being a dancer, but ultimately fails and has nothing to fall back on. The narrator doesn’t follow her dream but instead gets a broader education and drifts a bit, leading to more success. Contrasted with the super ambitious and successful Aimee, both are an example of what most people will do.

Early adulthood. What the book does really well, I think, is capture the lack of awareness of self and others people often have in early adult years. The narrator drifts through university without really making the most of it, stumbles across a job with Aimee and fails to notice how ill her Mum is.

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