By Zadie Smith
Two brown girls dream of being dancers - but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It's a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either...
Swing time is primarily the story of the friendship formed between two seven year old girls, Tracey and the unnamed narrator.
I really wanted to like this book but I found it hard to get into initially. I would say it was ok but nothing special. I loved reading the bits about their childhood but zoned out for large portions of the narrator’s adult life.
The book begins with the narrator seeking a respite from the problems of her life by going to see a movie and there she sees something which reminds her of her childhood.
“in the middle of the programme the director asked his interviewer to roll a clip from the movie Swing Time, a film I know very well, I watched it over and over as a child. I sat up tall in my seat. On the huge screen before me Fred Astaire danced.”
Watching it she felt a lightening of her load;
“I felt a wonderful lightness in my body, a ridiculous happiness, it seemed to come from nowhere. I’d bet my job, a certain version of my life, my privacy, yet all these things felt small and petty next to this joyful sense I had watching the dance, and following it’s precise rhythms in my own body.”
The narrator comes to the realisation that
“I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow. “
She begins to think about the first time she met Tracey on the way to dance class. The narrator loves to dance but is flat-footed but Tracey was always getting compliments on the way she danced. “Compliments made Tracey throw her head back and flare her little pig nose awfully. Aside from that, she was perfection, I was besotted.”
The narrator’s mother has definite ideas on who her daughter should socialise with and that doesn’t include Tracey. However, the girls bond only strengthens over time and they help each other through the daily trials associated with Tracey’s absent father and the narrator’s difficult relationship with her mother.
“What do we want from our mothers when we are children? Complete submission…all you want from your mother is that she is your mother and only your mother, and that her battle with the rest of life is over. She has to lay down arms and come to you. And If she doesn’t do it, then it’s really a war and it was a war between my mother and me.”
“My earliest sense of her was of a woman plotting an escape, from me, from the very role of motherhood.”
Her mother has very definite ideas on society, “people are not poor because they’ve made bad choices, my mother likes to say, they make bad choices because they’re poor.”
Initially she and Tracey went to separate schools but after a while, and much her mother’s disgust, Tracey moved to the same school. “It took Tracey moving to my classroom really was. I had thought it was a room full of children. In fact, it was a social experiment. The dinner lady’s daughter shared a desk with the son of an art critic, a boy whose father was presently in prison shared a desk with the daughter of a policeman.”
The narrator’s mother not only had definite ideas on society but also on the types of games children should be playing. “I decided to busy myself organising Barbie’s wardrobe, I was never permitted to play at home due to its echoes of domestic oppression.
The relationship between the two girls seemed to me to be an unequal one with Tracey taking all the time and dropping her at a narrator whenever she felt like it.
“I became fixated, too, upon Katharine Hepburn’s famous Fred and Ginger theory ‘He gives her class, she gives him sex.’ Was this a general rule? Did all friendships – all relationships – involve this discreet and mysterious exchange of powers? …What did I give Tracey? What did Tracey give me?”
There were bits of the book that I enjoyed, but ultimately this wasn’t the book for me.
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