When I opened Swing Time on the flight from Honolulu to Tokyo I had the distinct impression that I’d read it but couldn’t remember the details. Soon I was captivated by the alternating stories of two poor mixed-race girls living in English council flats told from the point of view the one whose mother is Jamaican and father Irish. Her opposite number, Tracey, has a white mother and a Jamaican father who supposedly dances with Michael Jackson. The swing time refers to the alternating present-day/flashback scenes, to the music that both girls adore, and to the question whether one person succeeds because of another’s failure.
Eventually I figured out why the book seemed familiar. I was so far behind on New Yorker magazines, I had recently read “Two Step,” Alexandra Schwartz’s review, which appeared November 14, 2016. Anyway Schwartz laid out the outlines of the novel, a series of quick-moving scenarios. The girls take dance lessons. The unnamed narrator lacks serious talent, but Tracey hopes to ride the dance train out of the slums. They visit a white friend’s house where Tracey goes into a rage that the narrator’s mother attempts to quell.
Ms. Smith draws her characters with exquisite detail. There is Mr. Booth, the “very old white man” who accompanies the little dancers and who encourages the narrator to sing. There’s Lamin, the Senegalese fixer who appears when the narrator’s employer decides to become a philanthropist in Africa. There’s Uncle Lambert, her mother’s brother, who smokes weed with her dad and commiserates with him.
The two people I wanted to encounter in more detail were the mother, a Socialist who educates herself and becomes an activist. And Aimee, a true rock star who elevates herself out of back-of-beyond Australia and in the process becomes Super Diva.
As with a number of contemporary works of fiction, Swing Time sustains its narrative and the clear voice of its narrator until just before the end. Like its much lighter-weight fellows California (Edan Lepucki) and Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn), I had the feeling Ms. Smith didn’t know how to end the book. In this case, however, the disappointment was tempered by the brilliance of the rest of the novel and of Ms. Smith’s luminous writing.