Friday, December 9, 2016

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Wow. This huge, powerful novel is so minutely observed that readers can be forgiven for occasionally missing the forest for the trees. Sex, race, and class are backdrop here, setting and makeup for half-a-life of self-abnegation performed on a world stage. Dichotomies between first world/third world value sets, the insular self-preservation of huge celebrities, the influence of money on impulses of every kind, the debts we owe another, how generosity manifests, who “family” really is— these life-critical issues are part of Zadie Smith’s latest novel. It bowled me over.

The story begins with two young girls, both fascinated with musical theatre and dance, as closely entwined as stems from the same seed, growing apart as they grew up together, the result of outsized talent and personality on one side, and a confusion of identities and timidity on the other. One takes a job dancing on stage, the other handmaiden to a dancer on a bigger stage. The confusion of identities is not challenged for years, during which time the handmaiden begins to observe cracks in the world she sought to manage.

She is nameless, the narrator. By dint of parental steering, she finished university and managed to find her way into managing logistics for a superstar, a singer/dancer. Descriptions of her work grow less enthralled as she ages out of the job ten years on, after discovering along the way that she may have been hired or kept on because she was a “woman of color” and filled a slot rather than for any perceived talent. In fact, the one time she does display an actual talent—for singing—her boss threatened to fire her.

Looking at a changed world without the prism supplied by the superstar, she realizes there is little she can take away. The lessons she learned may not be ones she wants to keep, and she is not sure if she knows how to speak to a person dying, or how to be friends, or how to care, or how to make those around her share a little in her successes.

Smith raises many issues in this novel but doesn’t solve them for us. The thing she does do so beautifully is poke a mixed London heritage and point to those little moments we recognize: anguish over unequal opportunity disguised as childish jealousy (Tracey); admiration for someone able to draw people into their orbit with generosity and joy (Hiwot in West Africa, her mother in London); how to be just who you are without signifiers like age or race or education or accomplishments (her father, James & Darryl in NYC).

The narrator is a shadow yet, in the beginning and at end of the novel, by her own admission, and has not grown into her own persona. But we are there the moments she begins to see, to recognize who she is, what she believes, and what she has missed.
“Now everyone knows who you really are.”
We do, and we feel so many other things as well. She is vulnerable, perhaps even in danger, but instead of being frightened, she feels a tingle…that’s blood rushing. Why does it take so long for humans to develop their sense? She is on her way, and she’ll do fine. The last thing her mother says to her is that she would make a good mother. And she would. But so will many others, even those who look incapable of it. Even Tracey. Even Aimee. Even her. She did learn something about love after all.
“The future is the same as the past.”
What did Lamman mean when he said this to Fern? Perhaps he meant our future is in our past, or the future is created from the past or the past determines the future.

I listened to this novel, published by Penguin Random House Audio and read by Pippa Bennett-Warner. Bennett-Warner was amazing. She made a plethora of accents perfectly distinguishable, at least five London accents alone, two Australian, Jamaican, West African, along with NYC and generic American, male and female. That’s pretty grand, no matter how you cut it. I took my time over this, did not mark my place as I listened, so often listened twice to any section to catch up to my last heard scene. I was never bored. Smith packed so much seeing in each scene, I was thinking the entire time. Impressive in every way, and tons to talk about if readers choose this for a reading group. Which I recommend.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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