Zadie Smith's 'Swing Time' Is An Essential Read For Fall — Here's Why
Childhood friendships are the types of relationships that shape our lives long after grade school, the complicated kind that changes who we are, what we believe, and what we become. Swing Time (Nov. 15, Hamish Hamilton) dives head first into those murky waters, which is just one of the many reasons to love Zadie Smith's newest novel.
Swing Time follows the lives of a pair of best friends, two brown girls growing up with their single mothers in North-West London, who form a fiercely close and complicated relationship around their shared dream: becoming professional dancers. But as they grow older and it becomes clear that only one of them, Tracey, has the talent to take her to the big stage, the two childhood friends begin to drift apart until, in early adulthood, their relationship ends completely. While Tracey follows her dreams to the chorus line, her best friend and the book's unnamed narrator follows someone else on their quest to achieve their own. Assistant to a famous singer and philanthropist-wannabe named Aimee, the narrator finds her life completely changed and forever more complicated when she leaves her home behind for globetrotting adventure that eventually lands her in West Africa, a place that forces her to comes face-to-face with the ideas that have filled her head since those first days at the ballet studio, ideas about race and music and time and blackness.
In Swing Time, readers are taken across continents and back-and-forth in time as Smith weaves a narrative that slowly reveals the intricacies of a childhood friendship built on the foundation of feelings of otherness, of being on the outside, of being two brown girls in a big white world. While the storytelling is more formulaic than her previous novels, to the point of being predictable at times, Smith's writing is impeccable, as always. Quick-witted and critical as ever, Smith's prose is rich and eloquent, each passage a lyrical treat.
Moving, funny, and unapologetically honest, there are a million reasons to read Swing Time, but here are to top five:
1. It captures the essence of childhood friendship.
"There is no case I can make that will change the fact that I was her only witness, the only person who knows all that she has in her, all that's been ignored and wasted, and yet I still left her back there, in the ranks of the unwitnessed, where you have to scream to be heard."
While Swing Time is filled with brilliant social commentary and critiques, one of the novel's most powerful examinations is that of childhood friendship, and what happens to that friendship as we grow, change, and move away from one another. The relationship between the unnamed narrator and her best friend, Tracey, begins from a complicated place, one of not togetherness, but otherness, and from there, it blossoms into something fierce and loyal. But as the novel shows, even the closest of friendships are susceptible to the jealousy, competition, and passive-aggressive nature that comes with the territory of growing up.
Smith's narrative goes back in time, drawing readers a map tracing the paths friendships take and all of the landmarks they leave behind. The love between the two friends is undeniable, but no more undeniable than the inherit competition that develops from two girls on the outside competing for the few spots that are open to them on the inside. Perfectly capturing the influence friendships have on our lives, our personalities, and our futures, Swing Time shows just how complicated things can get.
2. Music is its own character.
"The car stereo played reggae from my mother's island, turned up to a crazy volume. But whatever was coming towards us was dancing to rhythms reggae never approaches. Beats so fast, so complex, that you had to think about them — or see them expressed through the body of a dancer — to understand what you were hearing. Otherwise you might mistake it for one rumbling bass noise. You might think it was the sound of thunder overhead."
When you consider Smith's title, Swing Time, it should be of no real surprise that music plays a central role in the novel's development. From the Michael Jackson references in the narrator's flashback to she and Tracey's past to the enchanting beats of the Gambian drummers in her present-day adventures, Swing Time is filled with pockets of beautiful music that Smith helps you to not only hear, but feel, deep within your bones. Throughout the novel, music is alive on every page, either faded into the background setting the scene or, more often, and active part of the action. It takes on a life of its own, one that influence, morphs, and changes the lives of the other human characters it interacts with.
And, by the end of the book, if you were to pull out every musical reference Smith so delicately drops throughout, you'll find yourself with a beautiful playlist by some of the world's most talented black musicians.
3. It beautifully balances past nostalgia and present reality.
"I had been offline for seventy-two hours and can remember feeling that this should be counted among the great examples of personal stoicism and moral endurance of our times."
At the novel's opening, readers are quickly informed that the narrator is in exile after a social media mishap that leads to her to lose her job, and within the first few sentences, we are already beginning to think of the standards and the absurdities that have become norms in our current culture. Just a few pages later, though, readers are ripped from an iPhone-obsessed world to a simpler one in the past, one filled with '80s records and Double Dutch.
Throughout the novel, Smith drags us back and forth, from childhood to adulthood, all the while encouraging us to examine one central question: How far have the characters, and the readers themselves, really come? For the narrator and her best friend, the past was a place of big dreams and childhood loyalty, the present, one of failures and departures from the intended course. By pulling us between the two, Smith forces us to confront our dreams and our realities, our expectations and their true outcomes, and asks us, what is destiny, really, and do we have any say in our own unfolding?
4. The prose is poetic and evocative.
"Oh, it’s very nice and rational and respectable to say that a woman has every right to her life, to her ambitions, to her needs, and so on – it’s what I’ve always demanded myself – but as a child, no, the truth is it’s a war of attrition, rationality doesn’t come into it, not one bit, all you want from your mother is that she once and for all admit that she is your mother and only your mother, and that her battle with the rest of life is over."
Smith's novels are always quote-worthy, but by the end of Swing Time, your mind is filled to the brim with lines and passages you want to carry with you wherever you go. Graceful yet ultimately powerful, Smith's prose is enchanting, wrapping her wry social observations in beautiful and unique turns of phrases. The plot of Swing Time is enough of a reason to keep you turning the pages, but Smith's writing makes you feel like lingering on each sentence just a little bit longer, rereading her remarkable use of expression and language.
5. It captures the intricacies of building our own identities.
"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 never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow."
With the help of its first person narration, Swing Time does a remarkable job dissecting the idea of identity and what makes a person, a country, a culture, or even a race what it is. Throughout the novel, the idea of what or who we are is becomes a central question to each of the characters. The unnamed narrator, an critical world observer who is quick to assess the inner workings of someone or something else, doesn't hesitate to turn her sharp eye around on herself, diving deeply into what makes her who she is, and what stops her from being who she isn't.
Through it jumps back and forth through time, Swing Time illuminates the ways in which we are all constantly creating, dismantling, and reinventing our identities in an effort to grow, to change, and to become who we think we are meant to be. As the narrator makes quite clear, it is never quite what we think.
A beautiful and accomplished novels that will stir in readers all of those uncomfortable but necessary feelings of nostalgia, Swing Time is a must-read this November.