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Book Reviews Review: Zadie Smith’s Swing Time follows a childhood friendship through the years

Author Zadie Smith.

Dominique Nabokov Penguin Random House Canada

Swing Time
Zadie Smith
Hamish Hamilton

Our first cruelty as girls – our first stab at being spiteful – occurs early in childhood, in those years when the leading woman in our life, our mother, becomes our first target. She embarrasses us or dresses funny. She lives by a set of strict or randomly enforced rules. She might impose her politics (favouring them sometimes over an impulse to parent) or a culture she hopes you'll inherit despite being born in a separate country than her – a whole, it seems like, universe away from what influenced her; raised her; galvanized her. She concentrated our frustrations and whatever inaugural feelings of envy – envy of other mothers, that is – we experienced, despite having yet to identify them as anything other than red-hot heat forming in our chest. How we might have, for instance, coveted another girl at school's mother's beauty, her competence and grace. This other mother's ability to French braid. To bake. To alter and take in clothes. To arrive on time. To keep up with what sneakers, despite cost, were now cool. We were ignorant to the interior, private life of other families' homes, yet certain these other mothers were in possession of maternal qualities that, in our minds, outpaced those of our own mothers. Because, without realizing it, our first metric for comparison was founded on rating the many ways our mothers fell short or simply did things differently. Maddeningly so.

As daughters, this construction of her mother/my mother steered one approach to life: the moment an opportunity presented itself, what actions could we take to diverge and form our own path? What ideas could we race towards and adopt in order to split from our mothers? And how soon would we regret them? Or would it be too late? What friendships could we forge that might upset or go against her values and even, perhaps more benign, her aesthetic?

In Zadie Smith's latest novel, Swing Time – which, as the title suggests, alternates between two periods – Tracey, a girl whom we initially meet in the 1980s during a childhood dance class, provides the book's unnamed narrator with the inspiration for developing young a pattern of appraising herself vis-à-vis others. The narrator finds herself both emotionally and physically attracted to sources of light – women like Tracey whom she trails and whom she chooses to stand in the wings for; whom she cheers and comforts, and as it happens, eventually questions, abandons, even betrays. Envy, she later wonders, results perhaps from a failure of imagination; a failure to put herself in the picture.

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Tracey is the narrator's first infatuation.

"I was besotted," she notes, after remarking that Tracey has the same shade of brown skin as her, despite being more "perky and round … like a darker Shirley Temple."

Both girls are black with one white parent, and are from the same council estate housing in the northwestern London neighbourhood of Willesden. The comparisons began immediately.

"Despite my mother's constant implication that Tracey's mother was slovenly, a magnet for chaos," the narrator holds, "I found her kitchen both cleaner and more orderly than ours. The food was never healthy and yet it was prepared with seriousness and care, whereas my mother, who aspired to healthy eating, could not spend fifteen minutes in a kitchen without being reduced to a sort of self-pitying mania."

All of Tracey's qualities are converted into assessments. In some ways, she is the unnamed narrator's Estella to her self-styled Pip, setting forth the narrator's great and many failed, although always reflective, expectations. Even the narrator's expression of her parents' separation has a distinctly Dickensian, Pip-like ring to it: "My childhood took place in the widening gap," she remarks.

But it's the friendship between these two girls that shapes and tilts our narrator's entire life. As kids, compulsively watching Fred Astaire on VHS – "Tracey was an expert forward-winder, she seemed to know in her body exactly" when to stop the tape – and through college, and well into first jobs (at YTV, essentially MTV), and later, working for a Madonna-like pop star named Aimee, our narrator experiences each stage of her life, to some degree, anchored by her mother and alongside Tracey.

Even when their connection fades and they attend separate schools – and, as it goes between girls, changing bodies marked by "some obscure pre-teen logic" a mismatched duel between innocence (the narrator) and impending womanhood (Tracey) – the narrator expresses this new loneliness in relation to Tracey, only. She describes missing her friend as becoming "a body without a distinct outline." It's a very Smith line in that it speaks not just to the character's relationship to longing but also functions as the author's critique of her own heroine. As with Smith's previous novels, commentary is delightfully folded into the fiction. More so, simulating the novel's deep appreciation of dance, Smith's prose, too, takes on a sort of accelerated, feverish cadence. Reading parts aloud to myself only felt natural.

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Absence, it's worth noting, is a theme that recurs in Swing Time. "I couldn't help but notice the placidity of a small, all-female household," the narrator mentions while describing Tracey's fatherless home. Smith has conceived a novel where the characters seem moved not by some inner thrust, but by the people and community around them, and a past that possibly haunts them. By what is disallowed young black women whom the world assumes to know simply by looking at, instead of listening to, loving, or seeing (which is altogether different than looking at).

Time, too, plays a crucial part. Just as cities do in some novels, time may as well be a character in this, Smith's fifth. Coming of age is marked by impasses and thresholds, and the very notion of constancy means that a character like Tracey, somehow muse-like for the narrator, transcends. "She did not struggle, as I did – as most women I knew did – to find ways to dress her body in the symbols, shapes and signs of the age," she notes. "It was as if she were above all of that, timeless." When the narrator's mother begins to drift away from her husband, their parting is not simply labelled, but clocked: "And so when she began, first slowly, and then with increasing speed, to outgrow my father, both intellectually and personally, she naturally expected that he was undergoing the same process at the same time."

In one scene, excited to show Tracey the film Ali Baba Goes to Town, the narrator is describing a moment from the movie in which Al Babson is singing to the musicians, "the Africans." While Tracey grows impatient, reaching for the remote, the narrator describes watching Al sing a verse "that seemed to swing time itself, flashing far ahead, to a moment when these Africans would no longer be as they were presently, a time a thousand years in the future when they would set the tempo the world wants to dance to, in a place called Harlem."

Time in the novel moves between decades and a friendship as it wanes and recuperates in spates. But time, too, finds extra purpose on account of the narrator's relationship to memory. It presides over her. And when the narrator looks back, time, too, she considers, was supplying moments of prescience. The actors in Ali Baba were performing, as the narrator notes, "a move back from the future" – a Michael Jackson move the girls would attempt a year later. That 45-degree lean that tests gravity and provides wonder. The kind of elegance, our narrator notes, that ultimately hides the pain.

Durga Chew-Bose's collection of essays, Too Much and Not the Mood, will be published in 2017.

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