SWING TIME, by Zadie Smith. Penguin Press, 453 pp., $27.
“I had been offline for seventy-two hours and can remember feeling that this should be counted among the great examples of personal stoicism and moral endurance of our times,” says the unnamed narrator of Zadie Smith’s fifth novel, “Swing Time,” which follows a series of prizewinners including “White Teeth” and “On Beauty.” This comment occurs in a prologue set in the vortex of a public shaming whose details are withheld until the final pages of the novel, which gets away with being unabashedly gossipy by also being culturally rich, globally aware and politically sharp.
Soon enough, our protagonist is checking her email, zooming in on one with the subject line WHORE. “The body of the message was a single sentence: Now everyone knows who you really are.”
Who is she, really? That is the object of the story she’s about to tell, informed by a lesson learned from Fred Astaire, whose movies and biography were the sacred texts of her childhood. “He isn’t doing that right,” is what Astaire says he thought whenever he watched himself on-screen. From which the narrator deduced, even as a child, that “it was important to treat oneself as a kind of stranger, to remain unattached and unprejudiced in your own case.”
Her own case, explored as it unfolds over her youth and young adulthood, mostly in England, involves relationships with three powerful female figures: her mother; her childhood best friend, Tracey; and her employer, an international pop star from Australia named Aimee. Between them, they have completely defined her life. (Male characters in “Swing Time” have supporting roles only, deadbeat fathers, boyfriends, assistants.)
Or as it comes to her in the prologue, during a screening of the movie “Swing Time,” watching Fred Astaire dance with three silhouettes: “I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people. . . . I had never had any light of my own.”
She and Tracey meet in primary school. They are both mixed race — “our shade of brown was exactly the same — as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both” — and they are both taking dance lessons at the church. But while the narrator’s mom is a tall, elegant Nefertiti, a proud black woman obsessed with education and leftist politics, Tracey’s mother is an obese white woman with a thin blond ponytail and acne who dresses her daughter “like a little whore.” And while Tracey is a natural dancer, the narrator has more passion than skill.
Envy, judgment and tension relating to fine points of social class are permanent features of this friendship, and the first of several major blowups occurs at a little white girl’s 10th birthday party, where the two dress in lingerie from the mother’s bureau and put on a “show” to a hit single by the pop star Aimee, directed by Tracey, captured on video. After this, the girls are not allowed to play together and their desks are separated at school.
Thirteen years later, that very Aimee, a Madonna-like megastar, ends up hiring the narrator away from her job at a music TV network. She is one of four or five personal assistants — the top one, she feels, in a role that is like but also very unlike an actual friend. When Aimee takes on the project of opening a school for girls in a village in West Africa, the narrator becomes one of the lead people on the project. Here many complications relating to race, privilege, celebrity, sexuality, adoption, and even love, unfold; ultimately, disaster ensues.
One sentence of Zadie Smith can entertain you for several minutes. Take this one: “The end of my own middle passage came in midwinter, the perfect time to be a Goth: you’re in tune with the misery all around you, like that clock that’s right twice a day.”
The middle passage has multiple meanings in the book, as the term used to describe the slavery route is also used to described early adolescence. The correlation of the Goth perspective to the monochromatic, bleak winter landscape provides a little game for the imagination; as for metaphorical stopped watches, a real one, studded with zirconia, hands stuck at 10:04, has just appeared in the narrative, worn by an African character whose further attire includes a “pristine white Calvin Klein shirt with the monogram, and his white chinos and white sandals, all of it kept white by a means I couldn’t imagine, covered as I was every day in red dust.”
Both a stunning writer on the sentence level and a cunning, trap-setting, theme-braiding storyteller, with “Swing Time” Zadie Smith has written one of her very best books.