Prologue–Part One Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on February 3, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1422


The narrator has been fired from her job in New York and sent to a flat in St. John’s Wood in London. She has been instructed to keep her cell phone switched off. After three days of being holed up in the apartment, the narrator is informed by the building’s doorman that the lobby is clear of inquisitive media persons. To distract herself from her professional and personal crises, she ends up watching a live interview featuring a clip from the 1936 classic Swing Time, the narrator’s favorite childhood film. Eager to share the clip with her boyfriend Lamin back at the apartment, the narrator searches for it online on her laptop. However, Lamin’s perturbed reaction to the clip alerts the narrator to a crucial fact her memory has so far blocked—in the film, Fred Astaire is performing his famed dance in a version of blackface. The narrator is mortified at the omission. When the narrator finally switches on her phone, she is in for another terrible surprise. She discovers a message with an abusive title and a video attachment, sent by an old childhood friend. The message threatens to expose the narrator to the world.

Part One

The narrative now switches to 1982, when the seven-year-old narrator first meets her childhood best friend, Tracey, at Miss Isabel’s dance classes held in the neighborhood church. The two girls instantly take to each other because of their mutual love of dance and the fact that they are both mixed-race children, their “shade of brown … exactly the same—as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both.” While the narrator’s mother is of Jamaican descent, Tracey’s mother is white. The narrator notes that in the two mother-daughter pairings, her own mother and Tracey stand out as the better-looking halves. Though both families belong to the working class, living in the state-subsidized council flats, there are some obvious and glaring differences in their backgrounds. The narrator’s parents are married and living together, whereas Tracey’s father is absent from the picture. While the narrator’s politically conscious, idealistic mother dresses her in utilitarian clothes, Tracey is dressed in clothes with logos and in “tin bangles and hoops, diamanté everything.” The narrator becomes aware that her mother looks down upon Tracey’s family.

At the weekly dance class, Tracey soon emerges as a performer with formidable technique. The narrator notes that Tracey has a natural talent for timing—an important element of dance. The narrator learns that while her own parents are relatively strict, Tracey’s mother has a permissive parenting style and frequently showers her with toys. In contrast, the narrator feels her idealistic mother burdens her with many expectations, sometimes forgetting the narrator is a child. The narrator’s mother is often immersed in books on politics, sociology, and economics, with Saturdays designated as reading days. The narrator resents what she perceives of as her mother’s aloofness.

In dance class, the narrator grows closer to the piano player, Mr. Booth. Mr. Booth plays songs by Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, and Gene Kelly. The narrator feels a special affinity for songs that feature Fred Astaire. Her adult self notes that as a mixed-race child, she should have felt a greater kinship with the performances of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the most prominent African-American singer and dancer of the tap-dance era. However, as a child she reveled in what she considered the baggage-free nature of dance, the dancer being pure art, a figure “without a nation or a people.”

Miss Isabel gently informs the narrator’s mother that she is not a gifted dancer, but...

(This entire section contains 1422 words.)

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the fact does not diminish the narrator’s love for dance or her friendship with Tracey. She and Tracey are often “in and out” of each other’s flats, assuming a “different mode of being” in each home. At the narrator’s house, they often play with clay or try writing exercises under her parents’ supervision, while at Tracey’s flat they play with dolls. The narrator is sometimes shocked by the language Tracey uses during pretend play, which hints that Tracey is witness to something darker than the narrator has ever experienced. In the fall, Tracey returns to her all-girls school with “wild” Indian and Pakistani children and the narrator to her more experimental but “milder” classroom.

Things are changing at the narrator’s home too. She often returns from school to an argument between her parents. While her father, who is the chief care provider in her house, is more concerned with domestic matters, the narrator’s mother is more concerned with topics like “the importance of having a revolutionary consciousness.”

The narrator observes that though she is meant to pity Tracey’s “fatherlessness,” she likes the placidity of Tracey’s small “all-female household,” where the “only raised voices are from the television.” However, Tracey is fiercely protective of her father, telling the narrator he is not around since he is part of the pop star Michael Jackson’s dancing troupe. When the girls first watch the video to the Jackson song “Thriller,” Tracey points out one of the dancers as her father.

Tracey’s father, Louie, abruptly turns up at Tracey’s home one day, banging violently on the door. Tracey’s mother takes the girls upstairs and asks them to stay quiet while she deals with Louie. The girls can hear the sound of wailing and furniture breaking from downstairs, and when Tracey’s mother finally comes up, it is clear that she has been crying. A few days later, the narrator learns more about Louie when Tracey shows her the gun Louie keeps hidden in a Clarks shoe box inside the side panel of the bath.

Around the same time, much to her surprise, the narrator is introduced for the first time to Emma and John, her father’s older white children from a previous relationship.

When Tracey and the narrator are nine, a rough game, which involves boys grabbing the private parts of girls, becomes common in their housing complex. The narrator notes that although the act of a boy grabbing a girl is violent, girls who get chased and grabbed the most, like Tracey, are considered popular. In order to be thought popular, the narrator wants to be chased and caught, but her inherent instinct for self-preservation makes her fight the boys. The narrator looks back on this period of her life with a sense of gratitude for largely having escaped sexual abuse. She is well aware that it is personal, historical, and geographical luck which has saved her the violence many girls, including Aimee, who is a rape survivor, have experienced. As a child, the narrator is once cornered by two unruly boys in a classroom after school. The roughhousing of the boys soon escalates into a dangerous assault, with the boys trying to strip the narrator. At that moment, Tracey happens to come looking for the narrator, and she makes up an excuse so the narrator can leave the room. The situation is immediately diffused.


The prologue to the novel features an epiphany the narrator experiences while watching Swing Time in the theater. The song sequence she loves is the real-life “Bojangles from Harlem,” in which the movie star Fred Astaire dances along with his own shadows. The narrator realizes that her love for the sequence stems from the fact that she herself “lives in shadow.” The narrator’s cryptic statement is crucial to understanding both her character and the narrative style the novel follows. Through the statement the narrator immediately establishes that her mode of being is derivative and thus shadow-like. If the narrator is the shadow, other women, like her childhood friend Tracey, her employer Aimee, and her mother are sources of light. Thus, to understand the narrator’s story, the reader must understand the stories of the other women. In this context, the nonlinear narrative style of the novel, looping between several lives, gains greater significance.

Another significance of the concept of a shadow is its application to the novel's mother–daughter relationships. The narrator feels overshadowed by her beautiful and dynamic mother, while Tracey’s mother is overshadowed by her talented daughter. In the narrator’s case, her mother wants her daughter to be a shadow or reflection of her highest ideals. The perception drives the different parenting style of both mothers, casting a long shadow on the lives and characters of their daughters.


Part Two Summary and Analysis