Swing Time, a novel by Zadie Smith, is a story that “swings” back and forth through an approximately twenty-five year period of the unnamed narrator’s life from her first dance class at the age of seven in an old church in northwest London, to a scandal that ends her nine-year career as a personal assistant to a global pop superstar. Throughout those twenty-five years, the narrator reveals her own story through the stories she tells of the dominant female characters in her life: her mother, an aloof, self-taught feminist activist; Tracey, her talented and manipulative childhood friend; and Aimee, her self-absorbed, superstar boss. As the unnamed narrator tells these stories it becomes clear that she has allowed other people’s lives and choices to dictate who she is and define her path in life. It is only when her mother is in hospice, near death and Aimee has fired her from her job that the narrator is forced to face the truth that she has lived in the shadows and has no true identity.
The unnamed narrator’s unconscious decision to live in the shadows of others begins early in her life and is foreshadowed by her negative opinion of herself. When we first meet the narrator, we discover she is a young biracial girl being raised in London’s low-income public housing estates with a white father and a black Jamaican mother. Her negative view of herself is seen when she refers to herself as a “horse-faced seven year old” (10) and describes her face as “ponderous and melancholy with a long, serious nose, and my eyes turned down, as did my mouth” (9). She discovers her passion for dance at an early age, but soon feels overshadowed by her new friend Tracey, who is a natural dancer with foot arches the narrator describes as being like “two hummingbirds in flight” (15), while she describes her own feet as “square and flat” (15).
Along with her passion for dance, we discover the narrator has a love and talent for singing. It is probably the only ability she attests to having, as follows, “I became aware that my voice…had something charismatic in it, drawing people in. This was not a technical gift: my range was tiny. It had to do with emotion. Whatever I was feeling I was able to express very clearly” (25). Unfortunately, the narrator chooses not to pursue this gift because her mother doesn’t acknowledge her talent and early on her friend Tracey and later her boss Aimee are rude to her about her singing when they clearly hate being upstaged by someone else’s talent. We also learn that the narrator is bright when her teacher offers her the opportunity to test into a better school, but she rejects this chance to take a different path than her classmates by purposefully failing the test. The narrator’s negative opinion of herself early in life helps explain why she chooses to live in the shadow of others.
Relationships can totally influence a person’s ideas and beliefs and the narrator completely allows her relationships to define her. The mother-child relationship generally has a big impact on the way a child sees the world, and this is definitely true of the narrator’s relationship with her mother. Her mother’s ambition to raise herself out of her poor beginnings and current lower class life to become an educated, politically active and well-respected member of the middle class completely overshadows marriage and motherhood. This leaves the narrator unsure of her own self-worth. For example, she says, “My earliest sense of her was of a woman plotting an escape, from me, from the very role of motherhood” (18).
In addition to her relationship with her mother, the narrator’s relationship with her childhood friend, Tracey, is deeply complicated and greatly influences the narrator’s life. She thinks her friend Tracey is perfection, and is infatuated with her talent and fascinated and intimidated by her boldness and confidence. When the narrator starts high school without Tracey, who is now going to a stage school, she feels lost and alone. This is indicated when she says, “I found out what I was without my friend: a body without a distinct outline. The kind of girl who moved from group to group, neither welcomed nor despised, tolerated and always eager to avoid confrontation. I felt I made no impression” (213). Throughout the twenty-five years of the narrator’s stories, she continually imagines Tracey’s life and seeks her out even when her childhood friend is cruel, manipulative and vengeful.
We continue to watch the narrator seek a life in the shadows when she becomes the personal assistant to Aimee, a famous pop star. Aimee is an energetic, insanely rich, celebrity that demands total loyalty and dedication from the people that work for her. The narrator’s mother expresses her frustration with her daughter’s all-consuming job, exclaiming, “…you don’t have a life. She has a life. She has her men and her children and her career-she has the life… You service her life…” (154). After uncharacteristically questioning one of Aimee’s decisions, the narrator discovers that if you disagree with Aimee or step outside the lines that Aimee has drawn for you, she will find a way to punish you. It is when the narrator steps too far outside of Aimee’s lines that the fate of her career as Aimee’s assistant is sealed and she finally discovers that she has no true identity.
After spending the first quarter of her life allowing it to be defined by others, we see the narrator’s comfort with her subservient life begin to unravel. As she watches Aimee at her son’s birthday party, the narrator describes feeling like an outsider looking in and writes the following, “But why should she get to take everything, have everything, do everything, be everyone, in all places, at all times” (340). After Aimee fires her for having an affair with a man that Aimee herself desires, the narrator finds herself back in London with no idea of what tomorrow will bring. She goes for a walk to distract herself from her problems and ends up in a theater watching a director’s film discussion. When a clip from “Swing Time,” a dance movie she watched repeatedly as a child, begins to play she taps along to the music and feels like she is being carried away by the sound as she writes, “I felt a wonderful lightness in my body, a ridiculous happiness, it seemed to come from nowhere. I’d lost 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 its precise rhythms in my own body” (4). It’s at this moment that the narrator begins to discover joy in herself and ultimately face the truth about the life she has chosen to live in shadows.
We see the ultimate picture of the narrator finally beginning to discover herself when she admits the revelation of this truth, “…that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. In a sense, I experienced myself as a kind of shadow” (4). Hopefully, she will now take this truth, find a name and make some light of her own.