Who Comes for the Girls
Zadie Smith's inquiry into race, belonging and privilege
Following the many threads that wind through one another and potently overlap in Zadie Smith's latest novel, Swing Time, is a challenge for any reader that's paying attention, but its an exercise worth the effort. As ever, Smith raises powerful questions of race, gender and wealth, and investigates how these things speak to the opportunities her characters are afforded—all raised through several decades in the life of a nameless narrator. Written in the first person, this seems to be the narrator's memoir more than anything, and its chapters veer from girlhood—where compelling bonds are formed—to the narrator's mid-30s and the wake of a career-ending scandal.
Opening the book brings the reader to North London where the narrator unpacks her origins. Her Jamaican mother (a beguiling character, in relentless pursuit of betterment) and her try-hard white father raise her in a low-rise apartment and take her to a community dance class, where, before ever speaking to her, the narrator forms a connection with Tracey, the only other brown girl in the class. Gutsy, brash and a gifted dancer, Tracey is a well-made foil to the narrator. The mysterious, deeply-impacting friendships formed in childhood forge some of the headiest channels coursing through every chapter in the book. The narrator, quiet, studious, well-behaved, longs to dance like Tracey. The dynamic of passion versus talent plays out in their tumultuous life-long friendship—which sees Tracey make it to the West End stage and the narrator find success as the personal assistant of a top-tier celebrity—before they each, at different turns, and under different circumstances, return home. The narrator wants most to be a success in the eyes of the uncompromising Tracey, whose own flavor of success diverges significantly from the dominant narrative of what that looks like.
Smith's subtle inquiries play out strongly in the narrator's life as assistant to Aimee—who seems to be some reincarnation of the familiar famous type à la Madonna, from her unlikely rise to fame, her romances, talents and professional rebounds, and her children from around the globe adopted under questionable circumstance. Another one of Aimee's well-intended endeavors is to create a girl's school in a unnamed West African country. Smith renders the life of the village where the school is being built in vibrant detail, bringing to light the shifting identities the narrator inhabits—in London, she is a black girl, in this African village, they call her white. All her life, the narrator's function is to buttress the life of other, more alluring women. Our narrator is indistinct in and of herself; in this way, Smith interrogates the chimera of identity—and questions—while contributing something worthwhile to—the zeitgeist of literature examining the woefully self-absorbed, those on the quest to “find themselves.”
Powerful without being overly didactic, this is also a book about privilege—where it springs from and how it manifests itself. As such, the novel is timely and precise while being wonderfully accessible. A reader could easily pick up this novel and enjoy it without putting any thought to the underpinnings of all the drama; just as likely, what underpins each scene might be what others find most compelling and important in this uncompromising work of fiction by the incomparable Zadie Smith. Each chapter is an education.