British writer Zadie Smith’s new novel, Swing Time is a book about girlhood friendship and self-identity. It’s basically for all of us who have complicated relationships our besties from middle school. The book follows two girls, the unnamed narrator, and her best friend Tracy who meet in Ms.Isabelle’s Dance Class. Although the two girls share the same space, mixed race identity and love of dance, they are very different. Tracy is the striking beauty, effortless dancer, and show pony. She is described is the beautiful girl who owns every room she enters. The narrator is the sidekick… always Robin to a Batman. She basks in others light, never really finding her own, even though you get the impression that she too, is beautiful and has her own unexplored talents.
Through the narrator, we learn about the girl’s interesting upbringings. Tracy is the daughter of a chronically institutionalized Jamaican man, who she says is “away” because he is one of Michael Jackson’s backup, dancers. She is the light in her mother’s world and her mom uses her to live vicariously. You can think of her mom as a pageant mom, using her daughter’s talent and beauty to fill something empty for inside herself. Tracy can watch as much TV as she wants and has all the latest and greatest stuff. The narrator’s mother is a Jamaican intellectual type and her doting father is a white. But, the father’s commitment to mediocrity clashes with the mother’s ambitions. Narrator’s life is filled with books and structure. Because her mother is “woke”, she snuffs out her daughter’s light, in an effort to make her daughter ready for a racist and sexist world where any “girlish light” is a weakness. You can almost say the two, Tracy and the Narrator, are friends out of needing what the other’s life offers. Tracy yearns for the father and stable family the narrator has and the narrator yearns to not only have the freedom a single parent upbringing allows children, but she wants to be made the center of her mother’s life like Tracy’s mother makes her. She, the narrator, often complains about how her mother would read serious books and grow impatient at dance class while the other mothers looked on at their children with a kind of exhalation.
The book goes on the follow the girls through a rather interesting childhood as they grow up, grow apart, reconnect and then are separated by what the narrator sees as “a bridge too far”. As adults, their lives are very different but their roles are the same – Tracy is still the center of the universe and the narrator is still playing Robin but this time as the assistant to an international pop star.
While reading the book, one could not help but think of the girlfriends you had growing up, how different people’s lives turned out. It’s odd. Have you wondered how did you become friends with them in the first place considering how much you truly had in common even as kids? But truthfully, kids do not need real things in common and even though you never speak to those long ago friends, there is still a bond that connects you.
The book was wonderful. Zadie Smith peppers the story with not just the reality of girlhood friends but with all the nuances of race, class, and colonialism. It is rare that a work of fiction uncovers so much truth. The novel is a great pick for books clubs and solo reads. But as always, let me know your thoughts?