2 Following


The book presents many ideas for discussion by a thoughtful group: race, class, relationships, dreams, disappointments, elitism.

Swing Time - Zadie Smith

Swing Time-Zadie Smith, author, Pippa Bennett-Warner, narrator The novel is set between London, England and a community in West Africa. The main character, who remains unnamed throughout the novel, is our narrator. Beginning when she is seven years old, she describes her attraction to and budding friendship with, another light-skinned girl of the same brown hue. Both girls dreamt of becoming famous dancers, and both were enamored with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and many other famous entertainment figures. As the narrator reflects back and forth over the course of her life for a period of about 25 years, we learn that each child followed their own paths, which soon began to diverge further and further apart from each other. In spite of their similarities, it was their differences which caused the angst and jealousy that divided them, like one having a two-parent family and one being more talented. Only a spark of their friendship remained alive as years passed. Both girls lived in public housing; both attended dance class. Our narrator’s Jamaican mother viewed dreams of a career in the theater as a frivolous ambition, and she encouraged her daughter to study harder to achieve greater intellectual success and give up on a dance career. Tracey’s mom encouraged her daughter’s dreams of a career in the entertainment world. Eventually, Tracey’s career was cut short by the birth of her many children, and our narrator lives vicariously, spending her time working for Aimee, a famous singer/entertainer. She is her gopher. Traveling with Aimee, and attending to her every need, means she was no better than a maid, as far as her mom was concerned, and had, therefore, not improved her life in any meaningful way. The family background of each girl was completely different. Our narrator lived in a home with a father and a mother present in her early years. Her white father was a postman. Her mother was educated and ambitious. She sought an education and a career as a community activist, trying to help others who were less fortunate, although she herself was not well off either. Her career flourished, and she was elected to serve in Parliament. She held herself above others and was sometimes resented. She considered herself more sophisticated, spoke well and dressed conservatively, as opposed to Tracey’s white mom who was of a lower class and never achieved anything but landing on the public dole. She was a flashier dresser with a coarse tongue. Tracey’s father was MIA. Our narrator often resented her mother and her advice, and over the years their relationship suffered. Actually, our narrator did not make many permanent, close relationships with anyone, but rather she seemed to sabotage the relationships that got too close, often with inappropriate behavior or comments. Aimee, her employer, was a woman worshipped by sycophants who forgave her mistakes and unethical, amoral behavior because she was rich and famous. When she attempted to help the Africans in a small and backward community by setting up a school, she often provided useless gifts. For instance, she sent TV’s, but they had no electricity; she sent toilets, but they had no plumbing, she provided computers before they had the ability to use or charge them. As our narrator traveled to Africa to help her boss in this endeavor, she hoped to get closer to her own identity, but she did not. She continued to cater to and live through Aimee, never developing her own life fully. She would one day become the victim of Aimee’s cruelty and discover that all races and classes have the capacity to hurt each other without a backward glance. Neither Tracey nor our narrator achieved very much in the 25 years that were reviewed by her. Tracey was caught in the downward spiral of poverty because of the choice she made to have children prematurely. She took drugs and engaged in reckless sex. Her dreams of a dance career ended. Our narrator’s mom believed Tracey was unstable and was responsible for her own poverty and lack of success, and she then became the victim of Tracey’s cruelty, painfully discovering that no good deed goes unpunished. Throughout the book race, wealth, education and, on occasion, even religion, were used as a means to compare and contrast the achievements some attained and the choices some made. Our narrator’s mother wanted to rise above race, to prove to the world that she could be successful, but even she had to face the failure of her efforts in the end. How many lasting relationships had she made? Did any of these characters have any real relationships that were lasting and true? The book didn’t feel hopeful. Most of the tales were of some kind of failure. The narrator never found her true self or purpose. Her mother was often resented and unsung, and her work in Parliament went largely unnoticed. Aimee, the famous entertainer, was not really able to accomplish her goal to help the African community because her efforts were ill informed. While she decided to build a school for girls, she aroused the resentment of the boys who were now being neglected and the confusion of the general population regarding her gifts. Perhaps well intentioned, she was still misguided and her goals were unrealistic. In the novel, the author name drops many famous people uniting the fictional with the real world. The single common thread pulling the story together is music. As the voices and bodies swing in time to the music, so does the story swing in many different directions illustrating the sharp differences that exist in society for class, race and status. There is light humor injected into the story, but it is not a funny story at all since it shines a light on how our perceptions influence our conclusions, often incorrectly. The book highlights the conflicts that people of color face among their own, and in the greater world among strangers. The effects of elitism, racial prejudices, wealth and power are illustrated for all walks of life. Jealousy and greed are pervasive in society, everywhere. In one group, certain bad behavior may be lionized, while in another group that same behavior will be condemned. In one group, certain acts are more easily forgiven because of the power of money and the influence of fame. It gives truth to the theory that it is not what you know, but who you know. By contrasting the world of a backward community in Africa with that of a backward community in England, the reader’s eyes are opened. In order to escape the life they have, some will believe anything that portends to make things better for them; they are easily radicalized. They will follow a life that is not always good, but it is a life that provides them with an exit from their intolerable existence. Often, superstition, blind faith and a lack of education influence someone to make poor choices. Old ways simply conflict with the new. The poor accuse everyone of not understanding their problems while they do not understand their own responsibility for their plight; they accuse others of not doing enough for them even though they are not doing enough for themselves and, therefore, perpetuate their problems. The circle of defeat and failure continues downward because it is unbroken. Resentment, hopelessness and anger thrive. I found an odd comparison between Tracey and Aimee which would be an interesting topic of discussion in a book group. Both women loved children, but one was looked down upon and condemned for her choice to have them out of wedlock and with no visible means of support, while the other was lionized for her choice to adopt a child although she never planned to raise the child herself, but had the means to hire help to be the surrogate. Fame and wealth spoke truth to power, and poverty and lack of distinction spoke truth to shame. The narrator told the story in anecdotal bits which were sometimes confusing in the audio. I suggest reading the print version of the book. I was a bit put off by the author’s preoccupation with sex in almost every sketch related by the narrator. The ultimate message of the book, for me, was that “People are not poor because they made bad choices, they made bad choices because they were poor”