The Man Booker Prize Longlist 2017: ‘Swing Time’

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Do others have to lose so we can win? (p. 50)

At first glance, Zadie Smith appears to go out of her way to conceal what her fifth novel, long listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize, is actually about. The blurb of Swing Time is noncommittal. It admits to containing the story of ‘two brown girls’ who live in London, both of whom love dancing. Only one girl, Tracey, makes it as a dancer; the other (the unnamed narrator), moves on to new things. This novel is the story of ‘the other’ and is about, as the blurb tells us, ‘finding happiness’, ‘the choices we make’ and the friendships that ‘change us forever’.

I expected that this seemingly trivial plot would be used by Smith as a blank canvas on which to discuss more important ideas: the Observer promises Swing Time has ‘brilliant things to say about race, class and gender’. Indeed, the narrator grows up with an intellectually ambitious Jamaican mother for whom ‘sexual love’ is insignificant beside the ‘legacy of slavery’, and an English father scorned by his wife for not sharing these ideologies. Schools arrange desks so as to pair middle class students with working class ones, and filthy rich American pop-stars embark upon ‘poverty reduction’ schemes in West Africa. This is a novel in which dichotomy characterises every relationship and I assumed that by its close, Smith would have crowned one side more righteous.

But that is not Smith’s concern – her ‘trivial’ plot is not her canvas, but her focal point. She sacrifices asserting broad political statements for simply telling a good story, and it is her characters, whose lives are so intimately inked out that their vitality transcends the pages, which make her novel a triumph. A cleverly employed non-linear narrative ensures that the moment you think a character condemned, some past or future event vindicates them. Subsequently, I couldn’t take sides amongst them. Smith asks, ‘In order to win, does somebody else have to lose?’, and indeed, my notion of who won and lost was disoriented- my idea of ‘success’, shattered. Swing Time is gripping because of the ‘choices’, ‘friendships’, and ‘two brown girls’, rather than through reaching any objective moral conclusions. The narrator wonders how you can ‘deal with drops when you can see the ocean’, but Smith proves it can be done: captivating us with a candid portrait of a human life – a simple drop – whilst still acknowledging the ocean.

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