Arts Reviews

September Book Of The Month: Swing Time

Sharon Hsieh

Sharon Hsieh reviews Zadie Smith’s Swing Time for September’s Book Of The Month.

Zadie Smith’s novels tend to feature numerous characters who excel at re-inventing themselves, to a degree that it has become a self-referential plotline in NW (2012) as Natalie/Keisha projects her re-invention of self and social-climbing on her old boyfriend. The Iqbal twins each stray away from their Bangladeshi identity to accommodate for British street and upper-class culture respectively in White Teeth (2000), and the interracial and transatlantic Belsey couple who are navigating their bourgeois lifestyle from the working-class root in Britain and the US among other self-made characters in On Beauty (2005).

Whereas the above-mentioned novels usually feature a group of strong comparisons who are bogged down in their disadvantages by birth, in Swing Time almost all of the characters have experienced some stages of climbing out and plunging back to their original social and class circle.

The narrator recounts her adult life with interludes of her pre-adolescent and tween life and her elusive, near co-dependent relationship with Tracey

The anonymous and bi-racial narrator of Swing Time witnesses her Jamaican mother’s erosive consumption of her white British father’s affection all for the cause of the former’s ambition to change her fate throughout her upbringing. Although well-performed academically, her achievements have constantly been overshadowed by her mother’s success in activism and public service.

In comparison, her tap dance buddy, Tracey, has been awarded the freedom to opt out of a more institutionalised education because of her kinaesthetic gifts in dance. The narrator recounts her adult life with interludes of her pre-adolescent and tween life and her elusive, near co-dependent relationship with Tracey. In many ways, Tracey fills the vacancy of a sibling in the narrator’s life as her mother refuses to be ‘trapped’ by another childbirth and caretaking. 

In her adult life, the narrator oscillates between reminiscing of her former life at Kilburn and the reality of travelling around the world as Aussie megastar singer Aimee’s personal assistant. In many ways, Aimee’s self-infantilisation substitutes the narrator’s mother and Tracey, as the three of them share a sort of cruel naïvety, elaborated illusive vision and vulnerability.

Serving Aimee and meeting all her needs has consumed the narrator’s life to its deep core in their toxic co-dependent relationship, which seems like the elaboration of her relationship with her mother and Tracey. She follows Aimee and her tour to New York, West Africa, London and various other places. With Aimee’s random and episodic philanthropy enterprise, the narrator becomes acquainted with a Senegalese team member of Aimee’s organisation, Lamin, and an expert, Fern.

The four develop an intricate relationship that fluctuates with Aimee’s euphoric episodes and childlike tantrums, yet they also share uncanny similarities in their will to move above their fates as country Aussie girl (Aimee), biracial Kilburn council estate native (the narrator), a man confined with village life and poverty (Lamin) and South American scholar (Fern). 

Swing Time invites us into a chaotic, volatile and ambivalent world through the narrator’s matter-of-factly tone and melancholic perspective

The individual stories of re-inventing selves offer insights into intersectional struggles and the damage of power and globalisation on less privileged countries. But aside from this, Zadie Smith also offers challenges to the current narrative of critical theory that blurs the boundary between the flesh-and-blood of real people, and a wider ethnical or national community through the narrator’s activist/politician mother’s storyline. Against the popular narrative, the narrator indifferently presents her mother’s inclination to only see the bigger structure instead of individual struggles that cannot be categorised in any way. 

Swing Time invites us into a chaotic, volatile and ambivalent world through the narrator’s matter-of-factly tone and melancholy perspective. We see her revolve around other centres of attention, such as the talented Tracey and Aimee, as her role as a serving person involuntarily swings in and out of social and interpersonal boundaries.

An all-inclusive view of the current world we live in is presented to us through her detached eyes, yet her journey to reconcile with her ethnic background and family history following her parents’ divorce and the fallout of her relationship with Tracey shows her displacement between her own lived experience and modern grand narrative around identities. The ambiguities and fractured prism of self is the ultimate guide to steer the external influence on the self-perception and internal conflicts in the novel, as we keep re-inventing the different versions and compartments of self in the contemporary era. 

four and a half stars

Sharon Hsieh

Featured image courtesy of Ed Robertson via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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