Shall we dance? – Zadie Smith’s Swing Time

swing time

So, the length of time between posts will have already demonstrated to you that I failed spectacularly at my own challenge to read and review the Bailey’s shortlist before the winner was announced. For what it’s worth, I did in fact read and make copious notes on Stay With Me which was a deserving nominee and I promise I will upload my thoughts in more detail soon (I can partially compensate for this half-baked effort by providing a link to the author, Ayobami Adebayo’s thoughts on the integral themes of infertility and marriage here). I did though, fall at the first fence (pun absolutely intended) in reading the rather hefty The Sport of Kings. I hauled my copy to France (and now back again) and promise to revisit and indeed to finish soon. In my paltry defence, I have in the interim produced a rather awesome brand new tiny person who has taken up rather a lot of time and energy and so I hope to be forgiven.

Failing as I was to get into The Sport of Kings, I was quite easily tempted away by Zadie Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time. It received rave reviews on publication last year with many declaring it to be her “masterpiece” or “finest novel yet” and it has earned Smith her second Booker nomination (the first being for On Beauty which I thoroughly enjoyed). What then, is all the fuss about?

The novel traces the diverging paths of two childhood friends from the same Willesden estate. Both girls have parents of different races: Tracy’s indulgent mother is white, her primarily absent and sinister father, black (the right “way round”, we are told); where the unnamed narrator’s mother, fierce in intelligence and opinion, is black and her father, hapless postman, is white. The girls share a love of dance and though Tracy is the one with the talent that seemingly offers a route off the estate, our narrator is the one who leaves for a life as personal assistant to Aimée a pop superstar.

To describe this novel as a coming of age story or about race or female relationships is to reduce it to its component parts. It is extraordinary in terms of its scope and construction: yes, it is absolutely about coming of age and race and female relationships but it is so multifarious, so carefully and thoroughly layered that it, fittingly, resists those labels. Identity is shown to be relative and unstable, absolutes are undermined and selfhood shown in perpetual fragility. Smith’s writing is intricate in its exploration of identity and its distillation of intersecting influences like race, class, gender. Dance, the central motif, is portrayed throughout as a leveller of these (and many other) factors symbolising possibility and connection.

 “a great dancer has no time, no generation, he moves eternally through the world, so that any dancer in any  age may recognize him”

It is though a strange read. I spent the first two thirds in appreciating how incredibly skilled Smith is and simultaneously feeling rather disappointed and let down by the story and a sense that this was perhaps stylish construction over substantial emotional depth. I had loved the outrageous audacity of the narrative voice in White Teeth and felt short-changed by the quieter, more controlled tenor of the narrator here, unsure how much I really cared about her. By the time I had finished though, I am pleased to say that I was, quite literally, moved to tears.

Post-pregnancy hormones? Sure. Also, the focus on maternal relationships in the closing pages – I lost my own mother three and a half years ago and had just given birth to our first child, a daughter of my own, when I read it. But, it is also Smith’s unerringly precise and incisive observation that hits those nerves so brilliantly. Swing Time is indeed, disciplined, mature and elaborately plotted but it is also rich and raw in its excavation of what it means to be human and how we truly relate to those arounds us.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

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I finished this novel yesterday. I was lying stretched out on the carpet of my living room floor at home in Kent. Continuous games of football were being booted about noiselessly on the TV and the members of my family were variously packing, travelling, napping and enjoying the sun; the family cat Luna came and watched me for a while before yawning and going to find something more interesting to do. So I lay on my stomach for a good couple of hours, utterly engrossed and hoping that no-one would notice that I was weeping.

It has been a long time since a novel has made me cry like that and perhaps an even longer time since I have read a novel with such compulsion. I purchased it absent-mindedly after reading Zadie Smith’s essay that I believe now forms the introduction to this edition (it also opens Smith’s eloquent, personal volume Changing My Mind which is lovely and worth a read in and of itself). Smith describes her first encounter with Their Eyes Were Watching God. She describes taking it “to the dinner table, still holding on to it, as we do sometimes with books we are not quite ready to relinquish”: I cannot imagine a time when I would ever want to let it go. Indeed, I’ve offered to lend it to a dear friend and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to physically part with it, not just yet anyway.

The story is that of Janie Starks who stretches “on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her.” In search of “singing bees for her” Janie sits at the front gate “waiting for the world to be made.” It is here that she kisses a boy, that “shiftless Johnny Taylor”. The reader is taken with Janie through three subsequent marriages, each one entirely different in character. I don’t want to, in fact, I won’t tell you any more about the plot because you need to (and I mean that as a real imperative); you need to read it, to feel it for yourself.

The language is astonishing in its lyricism, the opening lines of the novel, much like the moment we first meet Janie, are stunning:

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.”

The words glow quietly off the page whispering as you rustle onto the next, yes, this is something special, come and feel with us. And feel we do. In Janie we encounter a character who, as Janie’s grandmother famously points out, being a black woman at this stage of American history, “is de mule uh de world.” Zadie Smith writes that “it hurt my pride to read it” and aspects of this novel are deeply painful. I found the matter-of-fact discussions about how to beat your wife difficult to read, I also found myself shaking with fury and disgust at the nerve of that Mrs Turner woman (you’ll understand when you get there).

This makes it sound like hard work though and it is nothing of the sort. For all the practical impossibility of Janie’s freedom; that is what lies at the heart of this book. Janie’s compassion for an old donkey; the sadness you feel for her with the realisation of “the rock she was battered against”; her capacity for true “self-crushing love” and the “glow” she feels when someone (again you’ll know when get there) teaches her to play chequers rather than expecting her to watch.

Zadie Smith’s introduction discusses the connection she feels to the novel, not just as a writer-reader but as a black woman; she explores the complexity of colour-blind reading and her joy as a fourteen year old at “the marvellous feeling of recognition that came with these characters who had my hair, my eyes, my skin, even the ancestors of the rhythm of my speech.” The tributes on the back cover in addition to Smith’s are from Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Oprah Winfrey.

I am a twenty-seven year old white girl from Kent. I have no real understanding of what it is to be discriminated against, nor of the heritage that bears and I don’t want to claim a fraudulent connection with Janie Starks or Zora Neale Hurston – I am conscious of that even as I type. And yet, in spite of myself, I, like Smith, find myself moved “to say things I wouldn’t normally. Things like: She is my sister and I love her.”