Zadie Smith's splendid new novel, Swing Time, borrows its title from a movie that's all about dance, and dance is a motif that ties together the book's many subjects: art, race, power and, perhaps most important, the bonds among women, as friends and as mothers and daughters.
All are subjects where, as in dance, balances shift, rhythms change and support can make the difference between success and disaster.
This is the fifth novel by Smith, an award-winning British writer whose earlier books include White Teeth and On Beauty. As Swing Time opens, its unnamed narrator is hiding from reporters in a London townhouse, for reasons that will be revealed much later. She ends up watching a movie she adored as a child — practically wearing out the videotape — but hasn't seen in years, the 1936 Fred Astaire film that gives the book its title. She's transported watching her favorite number, a salute to the legendary tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in which Astaire dances with three versions of his own shadow.
But then she's floored by two realizations. Even though she's biracial, she never noticed when she was a kid that Astaire performs the dance in blackface. And now, as an adult whose world is collapsing around her, she feels "that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow."
The book then swings back to the narrator's childhood in London in the 1980s, introducing two of the three figures with whom she will dance in her search for her own identity. One is her mother, an ambitious, intellectual young black woman born in Jamaica. She holds her only child to rigorous standards but is often busy pursuing her own career. (The narrator is raised largely by her kind white father, who adores her mother but is soon left in her dust.)
The other is Tracey, whom she meets in a dance class while they're both in grade school. The two instantly become friends. Tracey too is biracial: "Our shade of brown was exactly the same — as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both." But in other ways they're mirror images: Tracey's white mother is the farthest thing from ambitious, and her black father is mostly absent (Tracey claims he's a backup dancer for Michael Jackson) and problematical when he's home.
Tracey and the narrator are both besotted with dance, endlessly watching videos of Astaire and other dancers, making up melodramatic stories about ballerinas and, of course, dancing themselves. The narrator has passion but, she admits, no innate talent. "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 their limbs, some had it in their hips or their little backsides, but she had rhythm in individual ligaments, probably in individual cells."
Tracey, however, has reasons to envy her friend in turn and more anger than she can sometimes manage. The balance of power between them will waver and eventually spin out of control.
The first quarter of the book focuses on the two girls' childhood and adolescence, but the rest shifts into a kind of swing time, alternating between the continuation of that story and the narrator's life in her 20s.
One link between the time periods is a childhood idol of the girls, an enormously wealthy international pop star named Aimee. She's a mashup of real-life celebrities — a little Angelina Jolie, a bit of Bono, a touch of Oprah, but mostly Madonna, as Smith's spot-on description of her dance style makes clear: "The greater part of her routine has always consisted primarily of a form of strident walking. ... no move of hers flowed instinctively or naturally from the next, each 'step' was clearly visible, choreographed, and yet as she sweated away at their execution, the hard work itself felt erotic. ..."
As an adult, the narrator will become Aimee's personal assistant (well, one of a crew of them), living in a bubble of private jets and concert backstages and temporary, anonymous rooms in sumptuous houses. The stupendously self-confident, sometimes oblivious Aimee will become another mother figure and, later, a rival.
One of the narrator's tasks is helping to oversee a charitable project of Aimee's, a school for girls in a village in West Africa. Her time there gives us some of the most fascinating chapters in the book, as the narrator surprises herself by learning, and eventually loving, a different culture and its people. It shifts her vision of herself, too, and not just when she learns that, although in London she is always seen as black, in Africa she is considered white.
In the village, "I was," she tells us, "in the strictest sense of the term, good-for-nothing. Even babies were handed to me ironically, and people laughed when they saw me holding one. Yes, great care was taken at all times to protect me from reality. They'd met people like me before. They knew how little reality we can take."
The narrator's wry voice, mostly sharply self-aware but occasionally painfully not so, is just one of the strengths of Swing Time. Smith creates a large cast of convincing, vivid characters and moves them through a plot that finally partners the two timelines of the narrator's life, bringing all those dancing shadows together. It's a story that's surprising, sometimes shocking, but filled with energy and grace.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.