I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t read anything by Zadie Smith until I picked up Swing Time. The fact that her books are described as “literary novels” has put me off in the past but Swing Time’s bold yellow jacket caught my eye and I was drawn in by the blurb about female friendship and identity.
Swing Time by Zadie Smith has divided opinion and I’m still deciding which side of the fence I sit on. Some reviews say that Swing Time is disappointing compared to her award-winning novels On Beauty and White Teeth but if that’s the case, then I’m looking forward to reading her other books because Swing Time is by no means a disaster.
Told from the perspective of a mixed-race woman, I really enjoyed the first quarter of the book as she reflected on her childhood and growing up on a North London estate in the 80’s. In particular, her intense friendship with another mixed-race girl, Tracey, who shares her love of old musicals and ambition of being a dancer. The only difference being that Tracey possesses the natural talent and rhythm to be dancer unlike the narrator’s flat feet.
Despite living on the same estate, the two girls are divided by class. The narrator’s Jamaican academic, activist mother disapproves of Tracey’s single white mum whose husband is in prison. Nevertheless, it doesn’t prevent them from being friends and the narrator is drawn to Tracey like a moth to a flame. From the outset, the nameless narrator is overshadowed by Tracey’s strong personality. Tracey is spoilt, cruel and controlling but magnetic to someone who is unsure of their own identity.
The narrative then starts to switch back and forth between the narrator’s childhood and her mid-thirties when she’s working as a personal assistant for Aimee, a high-maintenance international pop star. Triangulating London, New York and West Africa, she makes numerous trips to Gambia where Aimee has embarked on a vanity project, disguised as philanthropy, to build a girls’ school. There are obvious parallels between Aimee and contemporary personalities in the public eye and Zadie Smith employs her to explore themes of colonialism, capitalism and celebrity culture.
This is the point at which I feel the book loses its way slightly. The narrator’s trips to West Africa become monotonous as nothing really happens and I found myself rushing through them to get to her childhood flashbacks. The changes in time also come without warning and are quite sudden so it was confusing at points but perhaps reflects the narrator’s struggle to find her place in the world.
The narrator is never named, which is powerful in highlighting that she isn’t sure of who she is and the way in which she defines herself in relation to other people, but it means that the strong characters she interacts with, for example Tracey, her mother and Aimee, are much more memorable. The impersonal narrative, combined with her cynical tone and lack of empathy, make it difficult to warm to her.
Where Swing Time lacks in action, it makes up for in beautiful prose and Zadie Smith’s social commentary on race, gender and class is insightful and witty.
For several reasons, not all due to the book itself, it took me a long time to read Swing Time and when I finally finished I felt underwhelmed. It was still an enjoyable read but it’s probably 100 or so pages longer than necessary and went astray after a promising start – the same could be said for this review!
In a nutshell, Swing Time left me feeling a bit numb, but it hasn’t put me off reading Zadie Smith’s other books as I really enjoyed her writing style and I’m confident she’s capable of much more.