Swing Time

By Zadie Smith

Penguin. 464 pp. $27 nolead ends

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Reviewed by Mike Fischer


nolead ends The narrator of Zadie Smith's Swing Time grew up with Tracey, boon companion and fellow aspiring dancer, two light-skinned girls of color in the same North London neighborhood where Smith herself grew up. Like Smith, who once dreamed of a career in musical theater, both love musicals. Both love to dance. One of them - Tracey - actually has talent. But neither fully grasps the significance of the obstacles on the path to success: Not just race but also - as always, with Smith - class.

There's no make-or-break moment dashing long-cherished dreams. Instead, one sees the incremental way dreams curdle, as a steady accretion of poor choices and bad breaks catch up with raw talent. "With wealth you get to be thoughtless," one character says. Women like Tracey don't have that luxury.

Women like Aimee - a Madonna-like superstar for whom the narrator serves as personal assistant - do. "She found her own story universally applicable," the narrator tells us. "The border between Aimee and everybody else became obscure."

Hence Aimee's naive effort to smudge such borders by opening a school for girls in Gambia.Smith's novel swings time between the narrator's formative years in London and her current challenges in Africa; the bridge connecting them isn't always apparent. The African chapters aren't nearly as compelling as those in London.

As in Smith's White Teeth (2000) and especially NW (2012), the sharply rendered London chapters explore how friendships warp when exposed to the weathering of history. But the joyous comedy of White Teeth is gone; to an even greater extent than with NW, history in this often dark book hurts too much.

Growing up, the narrator and Tracey had hoped dance might set them free, but attention must be paid to what the narrator's mother drives home: One's body is necessarily inscribed within the culture that contains it.

Gesturing at the narrator's body, her mother insists that it can never matter in a world where one is "playing the game by their rules." "If you play that game," she continues, "you'll end up a shade of yourself." "I had never had any light of my own," the narrator tells us early on, channeling Ralph Ellison. "I experienced myself as a kind of shadow."

How can one function as a person or an artist, within a world where one can't truly see oneself?

"We were taken out of our time and place, and then stopped from even knowing our time and place," the narrator's mother reflects. "You can't do anything worse to a people than that."

This review originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.