I found myself drifting off at those moments Swing Time became too much ‘famous actress / singer look at the good I’m doing in those poor poor countries’. And was drawn back into the novel by the vivid way Smith described the personal environment and relationships of her main character.
The entire novel is told from the I-perspective. Her name is never mentioned (I checked whether I had missed it somehow). I is the daughter of a white British Mail manager and a Jamaican mother. He is content with his life and very much in love with his wife, she is perpetually striving to better herself. He ends up being a postman once more in order to take better care of his daughter, she ends up in Parliament. He strives for his daughter’s happiness, she mostly wants her to do better, to improve herself. So he welcomes friend Tracey whilst she loathes ths child of a single mother with hardly any education; not the correct friend for one’s daughter.
I and Tracey are best friends and remain best friends for a long time. Their shared passion for dance is what separates them ultimately. Tracey is admitted to a dance training, I deliberately ruins her chances of being admitted to a private school and has to do with the local comprehensive. Tracey gives it her best to make it in the world of musical (not being a good singer does not help), I kind of drifts along to a mediocre university, a mediocre job. Then through fate she becomes the PA of famous singer Aimee, this time drifting along with her whims.
I is pushed by her mother to make something of herself and appears to have become totally indecisive because of it. Tracey is supported by a mother who believes in the talent of her daughter, failing when it comes to defending her child from an abusive spouse and father. I remains the indecisive adolescent who has no clue as to what to do with her life; Tracey tries desperately to succeed, not understanding that she has to let go of the behaviour of her role models.
When Aimee decides to do well in Gambia, I is the one who flies there frequently to monitor how the sponsored school for girls is doing. Getting to know the locals she starts to question whether doing well does not lead to the opposite (government funds seem to have stopped when Aimee started pouring money into a school). She also starts to acknowledge that her western point of view might not be the one and only way of looking at things. Who are we to judge that a marriage to a strict Muslim might not be the best option for a young woman in Gambia? In contrast to a young Western woman living a clueless life?
Smith exceeds in the descriptions of I and Tracey, in their relationship. Adding a layer of doubt, who ultimately is better off, and a very visual layer of dance. The novel is laced with descriptions of dance scenes in musicals. They show that a poor skinny white boy from a slum can succeed (Fred Astaire) whilst a talented black girl from another slum is doomed to a life in the chorus line. Those descriptions make up for the occasional actress / singer good cause resemblance.