Feel the Music

Zadie Smith - Swing Time

Swing Time by Zadie Smith was my Christmas read this year (Thanks to Opsonic Index -- Wait. What?! Shit, did I just blow your cover, Dude?). And YEAH IT MADE ME LOVE BOOKS AGAIN. Ok. It's not that throughout all these years that have past with me not blogging haven't been filled with books. There have been stacks and stacks and stacks of books. And, oh yeah, reading a few of them. From time to time, I thought about this blog as if I had no power to open it up and write a few things in it. Let's not dwell on all that - ok? I wasn't blogging. Now I am. The end.

You'll also notice I'm actually using proper caps where they belong. I'm over it, and you should be too.

Does this ever happen to you?: 

You're in a book and you identify so strongly with the main character that even though she's flawed and full of wrong-headedness and impulsive negative actions you see yourself so strongly that you get to the end and are shocked when you can't remember her name? In this case it's because she's not named. Because it's you. And many other reasons. This book did that to me. Obvs it's not really me (or you, for that matter). I'm not a WOC, not British, didn't grow up a single child, am not a dancer, a singer or even a performer. None of it really. But her self, her inner life - that's me. Her impulse to right a wrong, her jump to defend or argue a point, her opinionated will, her lack of commitment to her talents, her practicality: but at the same time her inability to take control of her life, to make her own decisions - being ok with someone else doing that because she doesn't know her own mind, or at least doesn't think she does. Yeah, that part. (Oh did I just bare my soul? Oh, well. The ways we believe we are, right?)

Two girls meet in a ballet class and their love of dance binds their relationship. Their family lives are the same but very different, both live in the "estates" in London, but neither on welfare. One with a beautiful black feminist mother, studying to get her degree, working to move up and on in her world and a gentle hard working white father who cares for her deeply. The other, Tracey, with her struggling white mother, who is outraged that she cannot "get on the disability", and a father that she barely sees on the occasion that he is out of prison. But both are the same shade of brown, the sameness connects them and then the music holds them. But, so strange and real how even in young girls a power imbalance infuses their every day friendship. They are in the midst of their own class struggle but Tracey asserts her power because the narrator can't see her own, she is caught by Tracey's perfect form, her technical precision in dance class and so she shows Tracey all of her loves; Fred Astaire, tap dancing, all the rich and soulful piano tunes that she sang with all her heart alongside the ballet class piano accompanist, Mr. Booth, during the class "snack time". She laid it all out for Tracey and Tracey took what she wanted and disdained the rest. 

I'm making Tracey sound bad and mean here, and maybe that's because I'm still working her out. Without too many spoilers here, she does do some pretty nasty things throughout the novel, and despite her clear talent, and all the work she does to succeed as a performer, her home live pulls her away from everything she has worked hard for. 

Our narrator doesn't work toward her passion, and she decides - without making much of a decision about it, to give up the idea of tap dance and song for herself - when she enters a Media Studies program in College, interns with an entertainment group and makes a subconscious pledge not to really have much of a family life. 

Do their mother's lives direct their own? It hard not to think so, but it's also not that easy to draw a straight line to the conclusion either. Both girls despair a little at their family lives. Tracey rewrites her father's place in her life until the stories she weaves about him are virtually unrecognizable from the man himself. And our narrator drifts casually away from her mother when her father dies and dives instead into her new career: Personal Assistant to a famous pop singer - the fictional, (yet easy to try to pin on any number of real-life Divas - for me she was Madonna) Aimee.

Aimee's world is so full of white privilege that the rules are completely different, so when she asks for help from the narrator through her mum's burgeoning political career to help her set up a "girl's school" in a village in Senegal, it almost seems like a great thing. How can it be bad? Girls being educated, support provided. But with power, money and privilege comes a blindness to reality and the singleminded Aimee is no exception. Things begin to fall apart and the narrator's mind begins to change as Aimee's vision and presence changes the village irrevocably; she promises their translator and guide, Lamin, a Visa to stay in England, she falls in love with a baby and adopts the child from the parents without the proper paperwork and with these actions come consequences from a chain of events. Things fall apart, but in falling apart, some things improve - especially for the narrator.

This novel layers the inner evolution, interwoven through past and present, of the main character as she develops and defines (and redefines) her relationships with the women in her life. Yes, her friendship with Tracey is at the core but her difficulty and then peace with her mother and her constantly changing closeness with Aimee, her connection to Hawa in the African village, make this novel and it's background of performance a true picture of the lives of women.

Narrator watches Aimee as she poses for the camera:

"She held this position: a room full of cameras flashed. From where I stood it was a pose that collapsed many periods of her life into one: mother and lover, big sister, best friend, superstar and diplomat, billionaire and street kid, foolish girl and woman of substance. But why should she get to take everything, have everything, be everyone, in all places, at all times?"

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