Swing Time, by Zadie Smith

>> Sunday, August 13, 2017

TITLE: Swing Time
AUTHOR: Zadie Smith

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 453
PUBLISHER: Hamish Hamilton

SETTING: Contemporary UK and West Africa
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

An ambitious, exuberant new novel moving from North West London to West Africa, from the multi-award-winning author of White Teeth and On Beauty

Two brown girls dream of being dancers—but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It's a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.

Tracey makes it to the chorus line but struggles with adult life, while her friend leaves the old neighborhood behind, traveling the world as an assistant to a famous singer, Aimee, observing close up how the one percent live.

But when Aimee develops grand philanthropic ambitions, the story moves from London to West Africa, where diaspora tourists travel back in time to find their roots, young men risk their lives to escape into a different future, the women dance just like Tracey—the same twists, the same shakes—and the origins of a profound inequality are not a matter of distant history, but a present dance to the music of time.
I get ridiculously excited about the announcement of the Man Booker longlist. I love the speculation beforehand (and I've picked up quite a few books from those discussions), and I love that so many bloggers I follow read the books. As I have for the last few years, I'll be attempting to read as many as I can from the longlist and all of the books on the shortlist. Liz McC and Sunita are going to be reading quite a few as well, which will make it even better. They've both got off the starting blocks a lot more quickly than I have, so do check out the reviews already on their blogs.

Me, I thought I'd start with one that looked to be a quick, accessible read. Swing Time was actually already in my TBR, and sounded like it'd be fun. Turns out I found it more challenging than I expected. The challenge was not on the technical side, but in caring enough to continue reading.

There are two main threads that we follow throughout the book. The first one is the relationship between our unnamed narrator and her childhood friend Tracey. The two girls met when very small, as the only two mixed-raced girls in a neighbourhood dance class, and then in school. Tracey was always a natural dancer, while our narrator was fascinated by the dancing and its history and ideas, but less of a dancer herself.

The second thread is the narrator's job as personal assistant to Aimee, a huge international pop star (think, I don't know, Madonna, maybe?). Aimee has decided she wants to start a school in a West African country and, as part of her staff, our narrator is one of the several people taking care of all the details.

There are a lot of interesting ideas and little bits and pieces here, but I felt the book never really gelled. It felt disjointed, and there wasn't a through-line that pulled the whole thing together. Part of the problem, I felt, was that I never quite got what linked the two main threads together, beyond our narrator.

And she was probably the biggest problem with the book. Our unnamed narrator never really comes alive. She seems to float around absorbing stuff from those around her and simply reacting. She doesn't know what she wants, where she wants to go, who she wants to be. Even her most decisive moments are simply rebelling, just not wanting to do what her mother wants. This is particularly frustrating, because Smith has a way of capturing her secondary characters (or not even secondary, even those who are only present in the margins and show up for a single scene... tertiary characters, maybe?) with a deft couple of lines and making the reader recognise them. But our narrator... no idea who she is, unfortunately.  And yes, the fact that she's an unnamed narrator suggests there's a fair bit of intentionality in her being a non-entity, but I felt the book could have been a lot more interesting with someone with more personality narrating it.

The other issue I had was that the Aimee storyline gradually took over the Tracey one, and I was much more interested in the latter. That felt a lot fresher and potentially more interesting, but Tracy disappears from the story in the same way as she disappears from our narrator's life (so yes, it does make sense). And the Aimee storyline made me terribly cross. In part, that is probably just me. I despise celebrity culture and take pains to avoid anything celebrity-related in my life, so some of that crossness was because it felt I was being forced to spend time with the sort of celebrity-obsessed people I run a mile from in real life. Yes, the point of a lot of that was to ridicule aspects of that celebrity culture, but the thing is, Smith doesn't really do anything new or interesting with her satire. It's pretty obvious targets and these targets are mocked in obvious ways.

Lots and lots of moaning above, and it sounds like I hated the book. I didn't. There were nuggets there that I did like. I liked the sort of abstract bits and pieces about dancing. I also liked the character of our narrator's mother and their complex relationship, which were both very well done. And the writing was often beautiful. There was enough there that I would read more by Zadie Smith, despite this one not being a particularly successful first try.

MY GRADE: A C+.

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