Review: Swing Time by Zadie Smith


One thing I love about Zadie Smith is her sensitivity to the small  cataclysms of contemporary life. In the early chapters of Swing Time, for example, she observes the influence of repeated viewings on her generation.  In my day, we saw a movie, at the movie theatre, once.  Maybe twice.  But as Smith points out, hers was “the first generation to have, in our own homes, the means to re- and forward wind reality:  even very small children could press their fingers against those clunky buttons and see what-has-been become what-is or what-will-be”. (56)

This new novel focuses on the childhood friendship of two mixed race girls growing up in NW London in the 80s. It’s gotten tons of press and great reviews, so I won’t belabor the details here, but will just point out a few of the things that I love about Zadie Smith in general and this novel in particular.   I love it when her narrator ruefully describes her first serious relationship as follows:  “My biggest flaw at the time, in his view and my own, was my femininity, which was of the wrong kind.  Woman in Rakim’s schema, was intended to be the ‘earth’, she grounded man, who was himself pure idea….I did not grow plants or cook food, never spoke of babies or domestic matters, and competed with Rakim when and where I should have been supportive.  Romance was beyond me:  it required a form of personal mystery I couldn’t manufacture and disliked in others.  I couldn’t pretend that my legs do not grow hair or that my body does not excrete a variety of foul substances or that my feet weren’t flat as pancakes.  I could not flirt and saw no purpose in flirting.  I did not mind dressing up for strangers – when out at college parties or if we went up to London for the clubs – but in our rooms, within our intimacy, I could not be a girl, nor could I be anybody’s baby, I could only be a female human, and the sex I understood was of the kind that occurs between friends and equals, bracketing conversation, like a shelf of books between bookends.”

If there was ever a more complete statement of what it’s like to be a natural born feminist, I’ve never seen it.

A great deal of the novel’s plot concerns the clash of race and privilege when the narrator’s rock star boss starts a school in Western Africa.  As she enters the world of wealth and privilege, the narrator is shocked, at first – but then begins to think that “Maybe nothing is easier to get used to than money.”  Smith sketches, with a sure, cynical hand, the chasm between the idealized school envisioned by the rock star, Aimee, and the actual operation of her charitable project, as overseen by a character named Fern:  “All in all the Illuminated Academy for Girls was not that shining, radically new, unprecedented incubator-of-the-future I had heard so much about around Aimee’s dinner tables in New York and London.  It was the ‘Loomy Academy,’ as people called it, where many small but interesting things were happening, every day, which were then argued over and debated at the end of each week, in the village meetings, which led to further adaptations and changes, few of which I sensed Aimee ever knew or heard about, but to which Fern closely attended, listening to everyone in that strikingly open way of his, making his reams of notes.  It was a functioning school, built by Aimee’s money but not contained by it”.  Smith’s brand of rugged, clear eyed realism is unmatched among contemporary writers, in my view.  And as always in a Smith novel, there were passages that made me laugh aloud.  Swing Time is a great read.