“Swing Time” is an incredibly complex book that delves deeply into a variety of topics, including class, politics, race, friendships and relationships, privilege and culture. The story begins in 2008 when the narrator, whose name we are bewilderingly (at least for me) never given, has been ostracized by her famous employer and is hiding in a luxury condominium in London.
Looking back over the 30 plus years of her life that caused her to find herself in seemingly catastrophic isolation, she observes that “A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.” We then learn, from the very beginning, how she ended up identifying herself through the accomplishments and recognition of others and how she is suddenly thrust into a life of her own.
In 1982, at the age of 7 (or maybe 10–this is not clear), our narrator, the daughter of a Jamaican mother and a white father, starts taking dance classes. Dance class is where she meets Tracey, the black daughter of an effectively single mother and an intermittently present, but usually absent, father, who turns out to be a dangerous conman. The girls are drawn together by the commonality of race and their love of dance. Tracey is the significantly more talented dancer of the two, which draws our narrator toward her. The narrator’s mother, a beautiful woman, is a student, feminist and aspiring politician, who disapproves of both Tracey and Tracey’s mother. Despite her mother’s disapproval, their friendship grows.
Tracey and our narrator bond over dance, race and their mutual admiration of a musician named Aimee. As time goes by, Tracey and our narrator grow distant although their lives continue to intersect. Tracey goes on with dance and ultimately has children and a life of struggle. Our narrator goes off to college and after a few missteps (during which she briefly reconnects with Tracey), the narrator becomes one of Aimee’s personal assistants, a job she holds for more than a decade.
Aimee is rich and spoiled, privileged and idealistic. She is also charitable and decides to fund a girl’s school in a village in Africa. Our narrator goes back and forth to Africa over a period of years, developing relationships and we learn how good intentions can subtly go awry when an idealistic person of privilege fails to understand the culture of the world which she is attempting to “improve.” Where Aimee sees poverty and deprivation, others see happiness and joy; where she attempts to effect positive change, the results are frequently unanticipated.
Our narrator’s relationship with Aimee is complex, as was her relationship with Tracey. A portion of the book is an exploration of female friendships, which are portrayed as complicated and difficult. At one point the narrator tries to explain to a male date how Tracey is a good friend even though they had not spoken in years. His response: “See in guy world we’d call that an ‘ex-friend’, or better still, a stranger.”
Our narrator’s mother divorces her father, goes through a variety of life changes and she ends up in Parliament. Another aspect of this book is the changing mother child relationship. The narrator and her mother are distant and communicate infrequently, although they generally seem to get along. Late in her mother’s life our narrator observes that her mother did not ask her much about her life. “Maybe it didn’t even matter to her any more what I did with my life. She didn’t have to take it as a judgment upon her any longer, or on the way she raised me.”
The book goes back and forth in time and the actual time frame is frequently opaque. It is also a difficult and dense read. That said, it is thoughtful and thought provoking, perceptive in its treatment of life events and profound in its descriptions of cultures and differences in perspectives. If you are interested in a book that will get you thinking, broaden your sensibilities and make you consider the world in a different way, this is the book for you. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11222985__Sswing%20time__P0%2C4__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold