Swing Time ~ A Delicate Dance

Swing Time ~ A Delicate Dance

Anna Hayward (she/her), Writer

Swing Time: A Delicate Dance

Zadie Smith’s Swing Time begins with a dance. The unnamed main character and her soon-to-be best friend Tracey meet in 1982 at a dance class as young girls, and immediately feel a connection to one another: “it was almost unconscious, two iron filings drawn to a magnet” (16). However, where Tracey is loud and brash, the narrator seems subdued and uncertain of herself.  This contrast provides more insight into the key questions of identity that are at the center of this novel; questions that an audience may unconsciously ask of a main character, such as “who is this person? What is their purpose? What are their motivations?” remain unanswered in Swing Time due to the narrator’s own confusion and uncertainty surrounding her identity and culture. 

While I appreciated Smith’s nuance in writing an unnamed narrator, I found it difficult to stay interested in a story about a woman with very little agency of her own. In the absence of a main character exhibiting conviction, the story felt stilted and not grounded in anything tangible. I never got a sense of the main character’s real personality, only the facades she put on while living her life in service of others. Had there been more detail involved in the characterization of the main character, the novel likely would have had stronger literary merit. 

However, the narrator’s wishy-washy identity could perhaps be the most compelling argument for Swing Time’s central idea: that the world, and our interactions with it, are informed primarily by power structures. This idea can be seen in action most clearly by the contrast between Tracey and Aimee: the two women are both extroverted go-getters and talented performers. However, while Aimee becomes an extremely famous celebrity, Tracey becomes a single mother living on the fringes of poverty. The difference that accounts for this is Aimee’s whiteness, and Tracey’s lack thereof. Swing Time reminds its audience that the innate cultural and political power within whiteness can elevate one person to stardom while sinking another into ruin. 

Constructing a novel around an unnamed main character also introduces a key theme of Swing Time: the legacies of colonialism. A striking example of this is the main character’s trip to Africa. She expects to find kinship there with her “extended tribe, with my fellow black women” (205). However, she soon finds out that “there was no such category. There were only the Sere women, the Wolof, and the Mandinka, the Serahuli, the Fula and the Jola” (205). Within this passage, Smith highlights the paradoxical nature of colonialism; it assures that the colonizers are familiar and comfortable in the lands that they are colonizing, and severs the natives and their descendents not only from their land, but also from their culture and history. It is these relevant and nuanced discussions that contribute to Swing Time’s significant literary merit.

As mentioned in Jennifer Szalai’s review of this novel, published in Harper’s Magazine, Swing Time asks questions of who holds power and how it is wielded. Both a strength and a weakness of the novel in my opinion is its noncommittal answers to these questions; while Smith certainly makes her audience ponder the ripple effects of colonialism, and doesn’t offer a naive, oversimplified conclusion, she also dances around these discussions without ever fully arriving at a message or purpose. I found it difficult to discern Smith’s desired takeaways from the novel when each discussion of colonialism was half-baked. But perhaps this lack of closure is exactly the novel’s message: Smith may not be trying to convince her audience of any one certain conviction about race, class, or colonialism. Rather, she could be trying to represent a multifaceted view of the intersections of power in daily life for a woman who is the legacy of colonialism.