Title: Swing Time
Author: Zadie Smith
No. of Pages: 464
Genre: Literary Fiction
Origins: Penguin Press
Release Date: 15 November 2016
“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.”
My Thoughts: Swing Time is a novel I wanted to love but ended up being a novel I struggled to finish. This is not the fault of the language. The story is exquisitely written, with powerful and unambiguous prose. The problem lies with the characters and with how the story is told.
The constant switching of narratives from the past, with its focus on Tracey, to the present, with its focus on Aimee, makes it difficult for you to become emotionally connected to either story. The switches are abrupt, and there is no minor cliffhanger to push you through each narrative to the next shift. They never fail to shock and unsettle you, even though you know they are coming, because the narrative itself has a rhythm that flows over you and fills you while you read. However, each narrative has a different rhythm, and it is unsettling to have to find that rhythm over and over again with each chapter.
At the same time, the narrator remains an unnamed bit player in the lives of these two larger-than-life people, even though the narrator is the one through which we see everything unfold. Even though she is intimately involved in every aspect of Aimee’s life, she is still an outsider looking in. As for her relationship with Tracey, there is nothing there that would indicate why they were such good friends throughout their childhood. In fact, one might debate the fact that they were not friends at all but more of a case of a minor obsession – all one-sided – between the narrator and Tracey. The same occurs later when she begins to work with Aimee. The feelings are never reciprocated by either woman, and the reader is left with the uncomfortable sensation of being privy to this failed attempt at friendships.
There is much in Swing Time about identity as well as a fairly biting commentary about celebrities who attempt to use their money and fame to promote their solution to a social injustice around the globe. Problems are so rarely solved by throwing money at them, and Ms. Smith does an excellent job reiterating this fact. Yet, the lack of connection with the narrator, Tracey, or Aimee makes the novel less powerful and more preachy. In addition, it remains difficult to adjust to the time shifts, leaving a reader constantly unsettled and racing to catch back up to the heartbeat of the storyline. While this may have been Ms. Smith’s intent, I found it distracting enough to make the novel fairly unenjoyable and difficult to read.
I have struggled with Smith’s books, even while I can see the merits in them. Think I’ll pass on this one.
Shoot. That means I probably should not rush to read one of her older novels, I guess.
I really want to read her in general, but still haven’t. I must one of these days!
I want to try another one of her books and hope that this one is just a case of the wrong book at the wrong time.
Well that’s a shame. I know the book is getting lots of promo time right now. Yours is the first review I’ve read about it. I supposed even Zadie Smith can’t write a brilliant book every single time.
Sadly, this was my first experience with Zadie Smith, so I have no basis for comparison. It may have been me – as I was reading this in the weeks leading up to the election. Not the greatest time for me to be reading a serious book. Still, I finished the book and had to ask what it was I just read. To me, that is never a good sign.