Author: Zadie Smith
Finished on: 10 April 2020
Where did I get this book: Borrowed from my lovely friend Cath
The blank slate central character is a familiar literary device, used in classics from The Great Gatsby to Harry Potter, a still centre around which a book’s plot, and cast of more interesting characters, turns.
Zadie Smith takes this trope to the extreme in Swing Time. Our narrator exists in relation to a series of dominant figures who define what her life is all about. She doesn’t even have a name. And the extreme blankness of this blank slate is the source of the book’s strengths as well as its challenges.
We follow unnamed narrator through the course of her life as she’s pushed and pulled around, reinventing herself in response to the situations she finds herself in. The strong characters she grows up with – from her politically active mother whose sense of self is so strong she refuses to even see anything that might challenge her views, to her childhood best friend Tracey from the wrong side of the estate who makes the decisions on everything from the games they play to the films they watch – leave her so devoid of personal agency that she’s the perfect choice when a barely-disguised Madonna – herself, of course, a master of reinvention – enters the story stage left, in need of a new assistant.
Swing Time contains some interesting reflection on the nature of success. By plenty of measures, our narrator’s pop superstar employer is the epitome of success – globally famous, a long-standing career in the music business, personal wealth equal to the GDP of an entire country.
But, when we’re on our death bed, what will we look back on as the successes of our life? Wealth, a jetsetting lifestyle – or the fulfilment that comes from ploughing our own furrow; living with authenticity and passion, even if it doesn’t conform to what anyone else might see as success? Or perhaps it’ll just be the joy of dancing with our children.
On Beauty, the last book of Smith’s I read, has a special place in my heart – the right book at the right time. Swing Time shares the same beautiful, reflective writing style, and meandering, exploratory quality, but is somehow more difficult to pin down. It may be short on answers and less emotionally engrossing – but there’s no doubt it provides plenty of food for thought in its questions.