Ruth Scurr

When the music changes

Swing Time, her brilliant new novel, explores familiar themes of freedom and personal identity with all her customary skill and grace

In 2011 the New York Times’s chief dance critic, Alastair Macaulay, asked:

How should we react today to ‘Bojangles of Harlem’, the extended solo in the 1936 film Swing Time in which Fred Astaire, then at the height of his fame, wears blackface to evoke the African-American dancer Bill Robinson? No pat answer occurs.

Zadie Smith’s fifth novel is a brilliant address to that question. In the prologue the unnamed narrator, who has recently lost her job as assistant to a Madonna-like star, goes to the Royal Festival Hall to hear an Australian director ‘in conversation’ and sees a clip from Swing Time — ‘a film I know very well, I watched it over and over as a child’. She is bored and a bit confused by the discussion of ‘pure cinema’ as the ‘interplay of light and dark, expressed as a kind of rhythm, over time’. Later that evening, after sex, she shows her boyfriend the same clip on her laptop. He is shocked by Fred Astaire’s blackface and so is she: ‘I’d managed to block the childhood image from my memory: the rolling eyes, the white gloves, the Bojangles grin. I felt very stupid.’

The novel that follows is structured around the narrator’s childhood friendship with another girl from the same north London estate. Both were born in the mid-1970s, brown, and are obsessed with dancing. The narrator has a black mother and white father, while her friend Tracey has a white mother and a black, mostly absent, father. Aged about four, Tracey tells the narrator authoritatively that her family is ‘the wrong way round’:

‘With everyone else it’s the dad,’ she said, and because I knew this to be more or less accurate I could think of nothing more to say. ‘When your dad’s white it means —’ she continued, but at that moment Lily Bingham came and stood next to us and I never learnt what it meant when your dad was white.

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