Towards the end of Toni Morrison’s Sula, the titular character lays on her deathbed and asks her estranged friend, in so many words, “How do you know you were the good one?”
In a story about two women, there exists the desire (inspired by a patriarchal society) to pit one against the other. Which is the virgin, and which is the whore? Which woman do you sleep with, and which one do you marry? Like Sula, any work of art that seeks to dismantle these questions—and forces you to consider women as complex beings—is a welcome necessity.
It’s no real surprise that Zadie Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time, falls into this category. It’s a brutally honest and brutally written tale that pulls and pushes the reader between continents with a feminist, black diasporic gaze. Such a gaze feels haunted by the past, even as it carves out a future for more voices like (and unlike) the unnamed protagonist and her “best friend,” Tracey. It’s difficult to summarize Swing Time, but it stands out for being that rare work to successfully take on the romantic yet troubling notion of having a friend who knows you better than you know yourself.
Swing Time’s protagonist is the black, London-born daughter of an intellectual and activist mother (though she’s rarely known her mother to keep a job) and a loving father. Although they live in the same neighborhood and share a similar passion for dance, the protagonist and Tracey might as well hail from separate universes. But the narrative counters the glaring differences between their families and their lives by presenting a portrait of girlhood—the distinctive time in a woman’s life when race, class, sexuality, and gender are fascinating but not yet burdensome.
Smith preserves this time with Tracey and the protagonist, whose girlhood triumphs and troubles weave through the story as it pushes forward into adulthood. The protagonist finds herself the personal assistant to one of the world’s biggest pop stars (clearly inspired by the likes of Madonna, Rihanna, Britney Spears, and others), Aimee. The drama of her lived experiences from London to West Africa, where Aimee builds a school for girls, doesn’t let up. But there’s something so delicious about Smith’s care for the girlhood scenes that makes it difficult to be pulled into the protagonist’s adult problems.
Swing Time insists that, for some of us, those lovely and problematic bonds between very young girls are just as complex as the relationships in adulthood. There are as many layers to a scene in which two girls watch a woman dancing on videotape as there are to the story of a woman hosting a dinner party. Smith has elevated the literary understanding of girlhood—and, in a way, girlishness—by presenting two well-crafted characters who are no less complex in their pre-pubescent years than they are as adults.
Dance makes for the perfect artistic backdrop for the novel, as Smith and her protagonist are concerned with the performative nature of nearly every stage in life—from early childhood, to sex, to motherhood, to death. In a world where so much of who we are is predetermined and then presented to a disinterested audience, Swing Time declares that there is a certain truth of self that might only be conveyed through dance. Such truths, like other realities in the novel, are certainly complicated by the contexts in which they exist. For example, what’s a black female dancer if she’s not the right skin tone or not appealing enough to a certain demographic?
Swing Time poses countless other questions—at times, perhaps, too bluntly—but always through this dark, comedic lens of which Smith is clearly a master. What does it mean to be an outsider everywhere you go? Is there anything or anyone in the world that money cannot or should not buy? And why does pop culture and our obsession with celebrity allow just about everything to spin out of control (an even more important question since America elected Trump)?
“You want to believe there are limits to what money can make happen, lines it can’t cross.”
In some of novel’s best moments, the protagonist breaks the fourth wall, inviting us to witness inner monologues where all that she loves and despises about herself is on display. It’s this same sense of humor that brings brilliance to even the minor characters, like the first college boyfriend and Tracey’s alcoholic father. And then there’s Hawa, the beautiful Mandinka woman who commands a room and develops a strange connection to the protagonist due to their shared status: no husband, no children. Even if you’ve never seen them before, Smith’s language renders them entirely familiar—they play like memories of people you forgot you knew.
And of course, much of the story feels unfamiliar. Smith lets us in on many of the jokes with her conversational prose, but there are other times when you get the distinctive feeling that you’re an outsider looking in—and that every story might not be for your understanding, empathy, or entertainment. Every world presented in Swing Time is not your world, and you’re not always a welcome voyeur. This sensation may prove discomfiting for some, but it’s part of the novel’s power—to invite the reader in yet sometimes veil itself, along with the cultures it represents.
After all, you may witness a woman dancing on a balcony or among Mandinka women or on a stage, but it doesn’t mean she’s yours. That Swing Time dares to say as much, while offering up an intimacy so rarely found in storytelling of any sort, is reason enough to celebrate this bold and singular story.
Shannon M. Houston is the former TV Editor of Paste Magazine, and current Staff Writer on Hulu’s The Looming Tower, as well as a Script Consultant on Season Three of Transparent. This New York-based writer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.