I liked, but did not love this book.
The book begins with failure. Or “my humiliation” as the narrator, a young woman, puts it. The young woman has been sent back to London by some unknown employer. She is hiding in considerable affluence and is tasked with avoiding the public, not to escalate a situation. From the beginning it is obvious that the narrating woman is familiar with London, affluence, the public, but not at home in these spaces. To distract herself from her predicament, she spontaneously attends an event at the Royal Festival Hall that includes a screening of the movie Swing Time, starring Fred Astaire. Watching her childhood favorite, she is transported back to a space she did feel at home in, and her love of dance. In this nostalgic moment she realizes that she has always defined herself through the “light of other people.” that her experience of herself is “a kind of shadow.” After the event, she returns to her doorman-secured-hideout and is joined by Lamin, a beautiful man from Senegal who is connected to the failure and someone for whom the narrator scandalously can’t have feelings. Still enthusiastic, she wants to share Swing Time with him. Lamin disapproves, for a reason our narrator only now realizes: Fred Astaire is dancing in black face. Her escapist space is based on a well-made minstrel show. This prologue ends with the narrator receiving an email from a childhood friend titled “WHORE.”.
The prologue is exemplary for the strengths and weaknesses of Swing Time, Zadie Smith’s 2016 novel about two biracial girls in North London. Beginning in their troubled childhood, both girls are in love with dance, and feel more at home in the studio than in the estates they grow up in. One of them has actual talent, and a dance mom; the other has more (non-financial) resources and becomes the longtime personal assistant of a Madonna-like pop superstar. The latter is our narrator, and the novel follows her to a village in a West African Nation where the superstar sets up a school for girls and influences the life in the village. The stories of the narrator’s job as a jet-setting gofer and her background in London are told in alternating chapters.
The strengths of Smith’s novel are obvious: Her prose is engulfing and almost flawless. The narrator’s observations, especially of the role of dance and body performativity in a girl’s coming-of-age process, are insightful and absorbing. Smith’s treatment of race, class, and gender is smart and unique.
Unfortunately for a book over 400 pages long, the plot development is Swing Time’s biggest weakness. I couldn’t truly connect with the characters, but character development was okay. In comparison to the aforementioned insights and flawless prose, however, the plot was rather unimaginative. The big ““humiliation” hinted at in the prologue and the commentary and insights create high expectation in the first two thirds of the book, and the actual reveal in the end is then oddly banal. As a collection of observations and commentary I really enjoyed Zadie Smith’s book, but as a novel I was a bit disappointed.