Two brown girls from North London council estates want to be dancers. In the same dance class, the same shade of nut-brown, they are "two iron filings drawn to a magnet," friends before they speak. One, Tracey, is a natural dancer: intuitive, genius, even. The other, the narrator of Swing Time, is talented in another direction: She is an observer, a wallflower given structure by stronger, surer women around her. Unnamed, unsure, neither black nor white, the narrator is fittingly indistinct in this brilliant novel about the illusions of identity.
As the two grow older, their lives diverge. The narrator goes to university and becomes an assistant to a pop star, living a detached life on planes and in rented townhouses. Tracey, after a few gigs as a dancer, fades back into the poverty she came from. And the narrator comes to feel that she has been the "sole witness" to Tracey's brilliance – expressed in movement and attention and wit and intuition and contempt for pretence. Does she owe Tracey something for leaving her behind, for dating nice boys, going to college, changing her voice? Tracey seems to think so: In her eyes, the narrator sees the question "Who are you pretending to be?"
Swing Time breaks the idea that we can ever come to a concrete identity, or reach the safe plains of self-knowledge. Identity is rather an exchange between people, a shifting topography, where the ground can collapse at any moment.
Only the narrator's white pop star employer, Aimee, seems to be able to really be whoever she wants, all at once. Rich and white, for her, differences are "never structural or economic but always essentially differences of personality." She never meets Tracey, who shares her talents but not her luck. If only other people had her willpower, her determination, and her certainty, Aimee thinks, no problem couldn't be solved. She decides to apply this to poverty in a small West African nation (unnamed), and pours money (ineffectively) into the village, taking African dance moves, an African lover, and an adopted African baby back in exchange.
Aimee's other foil is the narrator's queenly, righteous, and self-taught mother, a Jamaican "Nefertiti" with socialist politics and middle class aesthetics. She sees people structurally and sociologically rather than personally, defined by culture and color. When her mother talks about "our people," the narrator hears the quacking of ducks, repeating again and again "I am a duck! I am a duck!"
The women of Swing Time are case studies in the different ways people hunt for an identity. In London, the narrator is treated like a "moral fig-leaf" by her white colleagues. When she accompanies Aimee to West Africa, she imagines she might find an emotional home there with her "extended tribe, with my fellow black women." But "Here there was no such category. There were only the Sere women, the Wolof, and the Mandinka, the Serahuli, the Fula, and the Jola ..." The narrator is just another naïve Westerner, in wrinkled linen pseudo-safari garb, who thinks of Africa as a monolith. In a final insult, she realizes that all of her African friends think she is actually white: "Even though you are a white girl, you dance like you are a black!" they compliment her. Thus Smith shows how identity warps and collapses – the narrator's sense of herself as a part of a global sisterhood can't stand up to meeting those sisters.
When the narrator is enveloped in an Aimee-related scandal, Tracey leaks a humiliating video the two of them made in childhood to the press. She sends it to the narrator with a note reading, "Now everyone knows who you really are." Tracey means her note to be cruel, but it's also a promise: Through all the vagaries of identity and time, someone might still know who you really are.
With Swing Time, Zadie Smith identifies the impossible contradiction all adults are asked to maintain — be true to yourself, and still contain multitudes; be proud of your heritage, but don't be defined by it. She frays the cords that keep us tied to our ideas of who we are, to our careful self-mythologies. Some writers name, organize, and contain; Smith lets contradictions bloom, in all their frightening, uneasy splendor.