Book 17, a book you own but haven’t read, Swing Time by Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith is such a rich writer; she touches upon so many different themes in this novel that it’s hard to know where to begin when unpacking her work. While I have read reviewers complaining about this very trait, I think the point is that a great writer doesn’t or shouldn’t need to spell everything out for you. They hint and reveal certain truths, and it’s up to the reader to do the work of parsing through these ideas to find one’s own meaning and relationship to what the author reveals. They pull back the curtain; we do the looking and the thinking. Smith makes you do your work as a reader, and I can see how some will resist putting in the time and effort needed to deconstruct her ambitious novels. I guess that’s my nice way of saying, she’s a literary writer, so expect to take a deep dive and plan accordingly.
The narrative skips temporally between the “now” at the beginning, and the narrator’s childhood/teenage years/early adulthood. It also changes geographically, going from London to NYC, to Africa, and everywhere in between. Therefore, you must pay attention while you read. I felt Smith accomplished this quite seamlessly, but I have read reviews saying this confused readers. One thing that remains constant despite our time travelling from chapter to chapter is the thread of the friendship between the unnamed narrator and her childhood friend Tracey that runs consistently throughout. The plot consists of the evolving relationship between the two girls as they age and each chooses a different path into adulthood.
Throughout the course of this friendship, Smith touches upon many issues. As stated above, she touches upon them—she leaves it to the reader to take a closer examination and connect the ways in which these separate issues form a web that serves to oppress and alter the path for each of the women in this story. Smith touches upon issues of race, gender, sexuality, the male gaze, the white savior complex, inherent complexities in mother/daughter relationships, and upward social mobility. Possibly the most consistent theme that recurs throughout the novel is the plight of the “othered” person—those of us who don’t belong in mainstream culture, nor do we fit with the other sub groups. Our unnamed narrator is biracial, and while she doesn’t fit in with either black or white groups in Britain, nor does she fit anywhere in Africa—in fact, they even refer to her as a white girl there. She identifies with various groups, but they never seem to accept her fully as one of their own. She falls somewhere in the middle, in a no man’s land of otherness that is unique and lonely, particularly in her quest for meaning. Perhaps this is why she clings so tightly to the relationship with Tracey despite her friend’s glaring flaws.
For me personally, the theme that struck closest to home was the aimlessness the narrator feels. As a childless, unwed thirty-something woman with no real career path—just ideas about the kind of life you want to lead and the differences you want to make—that lost feeling can be so unbearable and I completely identified with the narrator in that regard. That feeling of ‘what next?’ can be so overwhelming. As she is looking back and examining her life experiences, parsing them out to finding common threads but not knowing how they tie back in for an overall meaning, I identified with that so strongly. I like that at the end, she doesn’t really have an answer. I think that’s how life is sometimes. You can’t always see the forest for the trees. The title Swing Time refers to the recurring theme of dance, which is on the literal level the means by which both girls initially hope to overcome their social status in life. However, I think metaphorically it represents the dance of life itself and the many changing tempos and styles we switch in and out of as we navigate the different stages and situations we pass through. Sometimes we try to blend in and other times, we freestyle, making it up as we go along.