The Personal And Political Are At Odds In Zadie Smith’s New Novel

Zadie Smith writes novels about the people and themes that seem particularly freighted with political baggage these days: immigrants, multiracial families and social groups, the white and non-white working class. Though she’s writing about her own home turf England, typically north-west London those realities are no less incendiary there, in the Brexit era, than they are here, in the Trump one.

But Smith has also declined, most recently in an interview with Slate, to get too political about the multicultural world she depicts in her fiction. “I’ve always dealt with [multiculturalism] as a descriptive fact,” she said. And anyway, she added later, “I don’t have a political intelligence […] Sometimes people’s intimate lives reflect the political world, but my first concern is always people.”

To those who love her fiction, this should make sense; her worlds jostle with the colliding energies of so many acutely observed characters tussling, flirting, gossiping, bullying, falling in love and giving in to hate. It’s the writing of someone who wants to get inside the minds of as many people as possible, to figure them out properly.

Swing Time carries that curious, energetic feel, but it’s also entirely different. It’s Smith’s first novel written entirely in the first person, muting the raucous din of her cast of characters by filtering them entirely through her nameless narrator, whose introspective yet often fragile consciousness purposefully distorts the narrative.

The novel hangs around the childhood friendship, and adult alienation, of the narrator and a girl named Tracey. They meet in a dance class in a church near the council estates in North West London where they both live. Both are biracial, the child of one black parent and one white; both are clinging to their mothers; both are intrigued by each other, though not immediately friends. The narrator’s mother is from Jamaica and has aspirations to middle-class acceptance, educational achievement and a career in line with her interests in political activism. While her husband, the narrator’s father, is a loving family man, he’s also relatively content with an unambitious life, while she’s beautiful, restrained, determined to act like any educated middle-class woman would and disdainful of Tracey’s mother, an overweight white woman with gaudy taste and no apparent goals except to get on disability. “It turned out as my mother had guessed at once that there was no ‘Tracey’s father,’ at least not in the conventional, married sense,” writes Smith. “This, too, was an example of bad taste.”

The girls are drawn together like “two iron filings drawn to a magnet,” soon becoming like sisters. The narrator’s studious mother disapproves of the friendship Tracey is spoiled with toys and TV time but can’t stop them from spending hours watching videos of old musicals and making up stories about ballet dancers. Though their similarities bound them together, in a crucial way the two dancers are different: Tracey has perfect arches and a gift for dance that the narrator simply doesn’t. As she carries on preparation to become a professional dancer, her friend resentfully finishes in standard school and attends university.

As they enter adulthood, they suffer a mysterious and traumatizing falling-out that effectively ends their friendship, and as the narrator goes to work as a personal assistant for Aimee, a famous pop singer, she slowly loses track of her old friend’s dance career and her life.

Meanwhile, Aimee takes a violently sudden interest in charity work, and the narrator finds herself spending weeks at a time in a small West African country working on a girls’ school her charismatic and impulsive boss has decided to found. There she meets Fern, an economist who manages the logistics of the project; Lamin, a handsome local teacher who’s in charge of guiding them; and Hawa, a bubbly young woman who teaches English. Well-intentioned but constantly misstepping, painfully reminded at every turn of her isolation not an equal of Aimee, nor capable of relating to the local people she’s frustrated by the mission she’s a part of, but also unsure of how to do better.

Back home, her mother, now a divorced politician, has fallen ill, and has begun hearing nonstop from Tracey, who seems bitter and unstable, full of grievances toward the narrator and her mother. When a personal and professional catastrophe devastates the narrator, Tracey is waiting, again, to vent her fury through revenge. Now a single mother of three, and no longer a dancer, she seems distant from her friend’s long-cherished ideal friend: spunky, sharp, beautiful, transcendently gifted.

What happens to Tracey, and to her friendship with the narrator? From the vantage point we’re given, it’s basically insanity a couple wild accusations from Tracey; first that their dance school piano player, an elderly man named Mr. Booth, touched her inappropriately; next a still-more shocking one about the narrator’s beloved father and then paranoia, rage, erratic behavior. The narrator vaguely disregards all of her friend’s claims, from a very early age; later, she’s horrified to hear that she’s sent “distressing emails” to such people as “[a] director at the Tricycle who had not cast her, she thought, because of color.” The accusation that Mr. Booth had been inappropriate, made directly to the dance teacher after Tracey was accused of stealing the cashboxes from a student show, is not only dismissed out of hand, but it’s clear that one friend worked hard to convince adults in charge to believe the teacher instead: “I made it as clear as I could that Mr. Booth had never laid a hand on me or on Tracey, nor anyone else, as far as I knew.”

Smith doesn’t seem to intend to give readers enough information to know whether Tracey was, specifically, harmed by Mr. Booth, or whether her career was thwarted by racist casting, or whether, as she complains, her black children have been discriminated against in the school system. The barrage of personal and political grievances seem, to the narrator, out of hand. On the other hand, her own story is full of unsettling stories of black girls being touched under their underwear by boys who crawled under their desks, of black actresses (including Tracey) treated as second-class in the theater world, and of black boys excluded from classrooms because their teachers somehow fear them. The cumulative effect is to make both the narrator’s struggles and her old friend’s paranoid twist seem more logical than at first glance.

During her rocky visits to West Africa, the narrator similarly finds herself befuddled by her surroundings but struggling not to superimpose the political over the personal. While her colleagues doggedly work to make the best of Aimee’s absurd resources, no matter how problematically distributed, the narrator becomes entangled in vaguely delineated suspicions of her employer’s privileged actions. When Aimee becomes infatuated with Lamin, or adopts a local baby, or sweeps in for a school opening, her assistant is always watching with the certain, sour sense that wrong is being done.

Is she wrong? Maybe not, but as the novel goes on, it’s difficult to see what good her political anxiety does, either. Time and again, Smith’s narrator offers the personal and the political, but she struggles to see how they might fit together, and in that she’s not so different from most people. 

The Bottom Line:

In a first-person twist on her buoyant, bustling London narratives, Smith examines the trouble of combining the personal and political, and captures the thrills of girlhood, dance, and first friendship. 

What other reviewers think:

The Atlantic: “Swing Time is criticism set to fiction, like dance is set to music. One complements — and animates — the other.” 

Jezebel: “Smith has a rare understanding of the psyche of girlhood, that rush of sexuality which is simultaneously exhilarating, frightening and confusing.” 

Who wrote it?

Zadie Smith vaulted to fame with the publication of her debut novel, White Teeth, when she was just 24. Smith has won a slew of prizes, including several for first novel. She has since published four more novels, including Swing Time and On Beauty, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006. She also writes criticism. Born and raised in North West London, Smith studied at Cambridge. She is married to poet Nick Laird, with whom she has two children.

Who will read it?

Who won’t? Smith is a literary superstar, and her new book showcases why.

Opening lines (from Chapter 1):

“If all of the Saturdays of 1982 can be thought of as one day, I met Tracey at ten a.m. on that Saturday, walking through the sandy gravel of a churchyard, each holding our mother’s hand. There were many other girls present but for obvious reasons we noticed each other, the similarities and the differences, as girls will. Our shade of brown was exactly the same as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both and our freckles gathered in the same areas, we were of the same height.”

Notable passage:

“Tracy could did tell a teacher to ‘fuck off’ without even being sent to stand in the hall, but Jordan passed most of his time in that hall, for what seemed, to the rest of us, small infractions talking back, or not removing a baseball cap and after a while of this we began to understand that the teachers, especially the white women, were scared of him. We respected that: it seemed like a special thing, an achievement, to make a grown woman fear you, though you were only nine years old and mentally disabled. Personally I was on good terms with him: he had sometimes put his fingers in my knickers but I was never convinced he knew why he was doing it, and on the walk home, if we happened to fall in step, I sometimes sang for him the theme tune to ‘Top cat,’ a cartoon with which he was obsessed and this soothed and made him happy.”

Swing Time
By Zadie Smith
Penguin Press, $27.00
Published November 15, 2016

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