Death Written Right: "Swing Time" by Zadie Smith

Includes: Spoilers for the novel; Discussion of the loss of a parent

I just finished Swing Time by Zadie Smith. I’ve been reading it on and off since December. It’s a beautiful, engaging, evocative, moving novel about the protagonist’s life from childhood to her mid-thirties. I won’t describe the novel much but I will spoil it—it ends with the passing of the protagonist’s mother in a hospice due to cancer.

Before my father passed I would find works (books, movies, tv shows) that killed off a loved one bland when it was done badly, but now I find such things deeply annoying to the point of offensive. It feels so horribly false and ridiculous when someone hacks away at such a deep experience with little skill or precision, communicating nothing about life as they try to use such an experience only to move the other bland characters from point A to B like limp dolls. I especially resent the triggeryness of these bad uses of death—they remind you of the death you experienced without doing the profound experience any justice.

Since my dad passed, the casual use of death as a plot point in nearly everything jumps out to me more. The overuse of it without any proper thought or interesting treatment is laborious and boring. I turn off a lot of tv shows I might have otherwise finished. I reject a lot of mediocre movies. Death of a loved one is scattered everywhere and rarely done with any semblance of real human emotion—neither the grief nor the weird humour—none of it.

Dead to Me is for me another exception, on the humour side. The lasagna rage, the weeping on the toilet, and listening to death metal while driving are all just perfect.

Zadie Smith’s Swing Time is the perfect counter example of this sort of experience as a reader or viewer. I’ve taken a great deal of comfort in a few interviews with her and a few of her essays since my dad passed. The way she discusses the death of her father is so humane that it counteracts the wash of media so filled with blanched depictions of such intense experience. In listening to her and reading her work I feel that moment of recognition—that someone writing has, in fact, thought and felt this same experience. It’s not some apparition in my life—the feeling of death and the way it makes me consider the past, present, and future, the finite and infiniteness of life. It’s not just something to drive a boring show or story to its inevitable over-telegraphed conclusion.  

Swing Time firmly situates the protagonist in her own life. Her relationship with her childhood friend, her origins, and her mother’s conception of their identity all suffuse her. In interviews Zadie Smith talks about the finiteness of life as she sees it, and this is so strikingly real, as someone who is still in the first year of a loss, and someone who writes, is so real and so cathartic it’s hard to communicate the relief of reading such a novel, the work of such a person.  

I’ve lately spent time with two of my childhood friends, and friends I met a decade ago, links that are often severed by moving here and there, time and space. Links that don’t really do much for the forward, upward momentum that is the general order or narrative of our culture—they’re real and deep and pointless to capitalism unless depicted inaccurately in shows or ads. I’m also presently writing a book, the basic idea of which started forming in me when I was a child, and more pointedly when I was a teenager. I find myself thinking both about how, as a writer, there are only so many works in me. My ideas germinate at one moment and take years to develop, or they come and go quickly but then become a significant curiosity to me when I consider my past. I have a list of works I’d like to write and most are at a minimum ten years old—most of them older. I feel too that my father’s passing has changed my conception of time. I was telling my old friends since my mid-twenties everything has felt like it happened two years ago, when it could be anywhere from one year to ten. That’s changed—I am very aware of the difference between the time when my dad was alive and the time when he passed. I won’t call it a sharp line, as I find memory and emotion mean his presence is still very much with me, but there’s a difference in time and in me. Having the opportunity to go through that difference with people who know you only on one side of it, new friends, and people who remember you as a child, even have childhood memories of your parent that you don’t from their own perspective, is a big deal. These components and people in our lives are not moveable or exchangeable. The experiences that inspire us aren’t either.  

It makes me wonder if the people writing the bad portrayals of death haven’t experienced it, or can’t manage to express it though their work, or don’t want to face it and what it reflects back at them about their personhood or life more broadly. I don’t mean to be cruel, but there’s such a dull cruelty in making a bland mush this experience.  

Anyway, all that, all that feeling is what Zadie Smith pulls out so beautifully in her interviews, essays, and in Swing Time. When I got to the part where the mother goes to the hospice I felt that moment of resistance, of not wanting to let the book unexpectedly drag me back to that place, but the feeling softened quite quickly, as it’s easy to trust Smith with your psyche. You know that she, as an artist, isn’t going to subject you to some hackneyed torture, yanking meanly at the aching parts of you just to find a way to tie up her book in the absence of any other ideas. Quite the opposite.  

In our family of four, three of us were from Canada and one was an immigrant, a childhood refugee. Our experience differs from the one Smith describes in many obvious ways—my father was Eastern European and an immigrant to Canada, not a Caribbean immigrant to England like the mother in the book—but there is something so incredibly accurate in the way Smith speaks to your heart if your family is composed in any which way like this—not all people from the same place. The way the immigration experience and exploration of one’s identity make up such an important and all encompassing part of your life, and the weirdness of the person whose experience formed that core being able to die and be gone in that way… it’s hard to explain how much Zadie Smith’s writing reaches into my heart and holds that glowing experience and let’s me feel it.  

Being subjected inadvertently to so many bad and meaningless depictions of death, Smith’s writing on death in Swing Time is the perfect opposite. Rather than the usual dull thud on a sore spot, it was a gift. The echo of death, it’s delirium, the kindness of hospice workers, the strange aura of people not experiencing what you are at the time—Smith evokes it all in a way that makes my ears ring. Place, childhood, my parents, my present, death, my experience as a writer, how I see life forwards and backwards and conceive of myself in death’s wake, how it feels to be in the loss of my immigrant parent—Smith lets me look into these experiences when I can’t find them elsewhere.  

While I’ve read a few non-fiction works about death a grief that have spoken to me this way, Swing Time is the first piece of fiction that’s properly sprung death on me. Rather than feeling annoyed by it, blanched by it, Smith makes me feel seen. She makes death feel real. It’s a relief to read it.

Interviews with Smith:

CBC: https://www.cbc.ca/radio/writersandcompany/zadie-smith-on-the-ups-and-downs-of-female-friendship-in-swing-time-1.3840639

Adam Buxton: http://adam-buxton.co.uk/podcasts/ep40-zadie-smith

Desert Island Discs: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03bg4v7