Zadie Smith’s Swing Time follows a nameless protagonist for well over thirty years of her life, as she moves through childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
The protagonist is not only nameless; she also lacks individuality. She spends the various stages of her life being shaped by two headstrong, far more assertive women— her childhood best friend Tracey and then her employer Aimee. The both of them share strikingly similar traits: both seemingly transcend time and age; they are exceptionally talented, ambitious and passionate in their respective fields— Tracey a dancer, Aimee an internationally famous pop star. Consequently, both are somewhat detached from the average person’s life and psyche, with their heads almost permanently in the clouds. This only changes for Tracey when her career fails, and she ends up a single mother of three trapped in her childhood apartment and dependent on welfare. While Aimee is also a single mother, her children grow up in luxury, albeit with an absent mother. Tracey, on the other hand, while poor, is extremely close to her children. The two function therefore as inverse reflections of each other, each at opposite ends of the class and motherhood spectrum.
The protagonist spends her childhood scurrying after Tracey, whose influence defines her developing character, tastes and how she spends almost all of her time, both directly and indirectly. Her adult life, as she works as Aimee’s assistant, is similarly moulded by Aimee in the same fashion. Aimee, then, is (at least through the lens of this protagonist’s life) Tracey writ large.
The only romantic relationship she has, with a boy at college, is emotionally abusive, with her partner determining what she can or cannot do and think. She devotes her time and energy to him, before finally being unable to tolerate the abuse. During the times in which she is left to her own devices, without some sort of overbearing influence, she drifts aimlessly through life. It is as if without a sort of container around which she can shape herself, her sense of self disintegrates. Watching this, on top of the so-be-it attitude she adopts in the face of this dissolution, is particularly exasperating. The only substantial sense of individuality she has appears to lie in her natural talent for singing. Even so, she almost never sings. The rare times she loses herself in her singing, seeming to come into her own apart from the defining influences of either Tracey or Aimee are tentative and met with derision and jealousy from the two of them. This talent is never pursued within the course of the novel. Perhaps, with her lack of name, shape and face (her face is like Tracey’s), the protagonist is meant to function as a narrative vessel for the themes and ideas in the novel.
The way she is unconsciously and helplessly drawn into and seeks out such similar relationship dynamics throughout her life suggests that we are unable to escape ourselves, our patterns and our past. As least for our title character, it is as if the song and stage of her life was set the moment she meets Tracey (which is where the novel begins, as if to rightfully establish that there is where her life begins) and from there, she cannot help but dance to the beat of their relationship, following the pied piper down the same road again and again.
In contrast to the repetitive patterns of the protagonist’s own life, her mother furiously works to escape her past completely. She studies throughout the protagonist’s childhood to realise her dream of becoming a political activist so she does not remain but just another suburban mom with empty dreams. She manages to do this, at huge costs. Despite this success, it is easy to see the way the past shapes her life, albeit on a larger scale— her passion for the history of Black people moves her to advocate for them. The fact that a person simply cannot unmoor themselves from history, personal or otherwise, is a message the novel continually emphasises.
Indeed, the continuous interplay between past and present in shaping a person is a recurring trope in Swing Time. As the narrative moves beyond the protagonist’s childhood years into her adolescence and adulthood, the chapters alternate between past and present; together, they present the formation and establishment of the person she is and the life she lives. The constant juxtaposition drives home the inescapable effects of a person’s past on their present and future; these ostentatiously disparate and different parts of a person’s life are but entangled links along the same chain.
In contrast to how she pursues these toxic relationships, the protagonist rejects relationship with any person that might offer her genuine and stable love: her father and admirer Fern.
At the end of the novel, the protagonist has been fired by Aimee, and finds herself friendless, lonely and alone. Upon receiving the news of her mother’s death (the only relative she keeps in contact with throughout her career), she not surprisingly finds herself drifting toward Tracey, her last and lasting tether. She has “an idea”: “new to me, that there might be something else I could offer, something simpler, more honest, between my mother’s idea of salvation and nothing at all”. What exactly this idea is is never revealed. Instead, upon reaching the base of Tracey’s flat, she looks up to see Tracey and her children on their balcony: “… hands in the air, turning, turning, her children around her, everybody dancing”. On that note, the novel ends, as if to suggest that that— the intimate and joyous scene she stumbles upon— is the solution, one that does not demand either violently uprooting ourselves or sinking into complete abjectness. Perhaps the only possible, victorious response to the inescapability of ourselves is the deliberate suspension of the present moment, despite the detachment and meaninglessness of doing so, and the celebration of the tenuous connections that hold us despite it all.