Exile on All Streets
An unnamed narrator flees a scandal in Zadie Smith's novel
Zadie Smith's Swing Time is light by design but as powerful as its predecessor, NW. Where that book vaulted a reader down the block, Swing Time carries you gently to a finish that is bloodless and brutal. The two novels are siblings, rooted in the same slice of northwest London, though Swing Time casts out into New York and West Africa. Themes found in all of Smith's novels appear: the clash between various Anglophone cultures; a friendship falling out of alignment when only one of the friends hits the big time; and the ways people use each other as markers of authenticity.
Swing Time is narrated in flickering time, with a story that bounces between decades. The narrator, never named, embodies the British and West Indian conflict, with an English father and a Jamaican mother. In her early adulthood, she finds herself working for a white Australian pop star turned global do-gooder, Aimee, who charges forward, always, allergic to the reflection (and self-abnegation) our narrator subsists on. As a child, our narrator lives for dance, one of the many art forms Aimee hoovers up, heading for a final appropriation that goes way beyond "being dressed up to resemble Asante nobles." The narrator becomes fully aware of the self-interest baked into both entertainment and the humanitarian project Aimee decides is one of her mandates.
The narrator is not unreliable so much as reluctant. She is her own absence. The book begins with an unspecified "humiliation" that has been public and severe enough that she is hiding out in a rental flat in St. John's Wood. When the coast is clear, she
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