Author Zadie Smith © Dominique Nabokov 2016

2017 Man Booker Review: Swing Time

6th September 2017

By Lisa Botwright

A penetrating and moving coming-of-age novel, ‘Swing Time’ is ambitious in time and geography – set across the decades from the 1980s until today, and from urban south London to village life in Togo, West Africa.

At the beginning of the story, the unnamed narrator is holed up in a temporary rental in affluent St John’s Wood. ‘The first day of my humiliation,’ she bemoans. In classic circular-style, she reflects back on her life and the circumstances that lead up to this self-imposed quarantine.

We go back twenty five-odd years and meet her imperious mother, and her guileless dad. It’s clear that the luxury flat in which she finds herself now is far removed from the council estate in which she grew up.

While her relationship with her father is warm-hearted and affectionate, her relationship with her beautiful ‘Nefertiti-like’ mother is much more complicated. This wholly un-maternal figure is restless, intellectually driven and emotionally absent. ‘My earliest sense of her was of a woman plotting to escape, from me, from the very role of motherhood’. She spends her time poring over books on race, gender and politics, ‘all the ‘isms’ as her father calls them; and craves peace and solitude so that she can study. ‘We were vandals in the temple,’ our narrator recognises sadly.

With her ‘terrific instinct for middle class mores’, the mother deigns to allow her daughter to attend dance classes at the local church hall. It’s here that the young protagonist meets Tracey (‘our shade of brown was exactly the same – as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both’) and the pair embark on a lifelong friendship of mutual admiration and antagonism.

Tracey is dazzling, confident and talented. ‘I really felt that if I could dance like Tracey I would never want for anything else in this world… Other girls had rhythm in her limbs, but she had rhythm in individual cells.’

Caught between the untrammelled ambition of her mother and her best friend – one for social justice and one for all the trappings of fame – amidst the starkly contrasting working-class poverty and apathy that surrounds them, the narrator is paralysed by lack of confidence and lack of direction.

When her teachers note her high IQ, and her mother secures her the chance of a scholarship at a local private school, the central character sabotages the opportunity by refusing to answer any of the entry-exam questions.

Zadie Smith has an incredible talent for painting vivid characters, but although this story is told in the first person, strangely it’s this central character that I found least the sympathetic and the most two-dimensional. It’s interesting that we never find out her name, and perhaps that reflects her rootlessness and lack of purpose; as if she’s undeserving of a secure place in society.

It also struck me towards the end of the novel that perhaps I didn’t like her very much because she does’t like herself very much. Or perhaps it’s because Zadie Smith purposely uses the character like a mirror: to reflect back to the reader what she wants to say about racism, social dislocation and the British class system.

The richly-textured nature of this novel means it can be savoured in so many ways: as an accessible page-turner about family, friendship and dance, as an incisive social commentary, or as a melancholy introspection about loneliness, isolation and identity. What comes across, in every interpretation, is a poignant desire for love and acceptance.

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