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The Female Conception of Time in Zadie Smith’s "Swing Time"

About a year ago, I first heard the ticking of the clock that has counted down my time since the minute of my birth. It’s still faint—I am young, only 24—but there it was. We all know we’re going to die, of course, but I guess, like most young people, I’ve always viewed that fact abstractly, from a distance. For the first time, that knowledge came barrelling into the most intimate corners of my life, resulting in a constant low-grade anxiety.

With the knowledge that I will, at some point, die also came the recognition that I am currently living, a prospect that’s frightening enough in and of itself. What to do with all this time? What to do with such limited time? And a recent health scare (or, more accurately, my overreaction to a recent health scare) threw this impending life/death scenario into even sharper relief.

To my dismay, these realizations and the subsequent sense of mania that accompanies them have not resulted in a feverishly written novel or a brilliant startup idea or anything of the sort (but, I mean, my apartment is sparkling clean. Does that count?). I don’t yet know exactly what I want to accomplish. And neither does the unnamed narrator of Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time.

This was my first Zadie novel, and I’m sure anyone who has read it knows there is a lot—a lot—to talk about. But as someone who has been rolling the idea of time around in my head like a ball of Play-Doh in the sweaty hands of a kindergartner, the specifically female meditations on time in this novel are particularly interesting to me.

The novel begins when the narrator is a young girl and continues up until she is 33. But it’s certainly not linear. Throughout much of the book, the chapters alternate, switching between patches of time in which the narrator is a young girl and then a young woman, proving how directly our pasts influence our futures. The book begins with a young Tracey, the narrator’s childhood best friend, going to a dance class with her mother and ends with an older Tracey, now a mother herself, “in a dressing gown and slippers, her hands in the air, turning, turning, her children around her, everybody dancing.”

Time affects women acutely in the novel. Aimee, the narrator’s pop-star employer, loses her ability to handle heartbreak as she ages. Hawa, the fun-loving Gambian woman the narrator stays with while in the country, marries a staunchly religious man and must at least partially renounce her worldliness. The narrator’s mother, also unnamed, starts from modest means, becomes an academic and a British MP, and finally succumbs to a childlike state just prior to her death. But the change in Tracey is most notable; she starts off in the novel as a young, promising dancer, full of beauty and sensuality. She eventually becomes a professional dancer who scores a few minor roles. And at the end of the novel, she is the single mother to three children and uses her access to the internet to obsessively type out her grievances against the government, the narrator, and power structures as a whole.

The men in the novel, in comparison, change very little. The narrator’s father, after his separation from her mother, lives a quiet and seemingly uneventful life. Lambert, the narrator’s uncle, lives in the same home he has owned since the family originally moved to London from Jamaica. And Lamin, despite his apparently drastic change to win Aimee’s heart so he can obtain a British visa, reverts back to his quiet, solitary self once he sets foot in London.

In an interview about the book, Smith highlights the reason for this gender dichotomy. Women are faced with the reality of time more urgently than are men. This is entirely biological; our bodies come set with a timer, like it or not. For women, menopause functions as a yellow light on a stop sign, whereas men are shocked when the pubertal green light of their youth suddenly changes to red, catching them unawares.

And I’ve noticed this in my own life. The women around me, of all ages, but especially those who are older, seem to have a more acute sense of their mortality. What does this mean for us? Does this simply mean we have more time to mentally prepare for the inevitable? Or, like the narrator in the novel, does it just result in an extended existential crisis?

I’m not sure. I’m not even sure there is a practical lesson to take away from this novel, which would be appealing, yes, but doesn’t seem to have the artistic impact that the work ended with. All I know is that this conception of time, notedly female, strikes a particularly sentimental chord with me. If nothing else, I’m convinced that the time I invested in reading this novel—time I’ll never get back—was particularly well-spent.

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