Friday, 18 November 2016

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Book Review

Review of Swing Time by Zadie Smith

I've got a confession to make; I hadn't read any Zadie Smith novels until a few weeks ago, when I ploughed through White Teeth as I knew I had Swing Time to review and wanted to read her most famous novel first.

I don't know why I've never read any Smith, maybe because when White Teeth came out in 2000 I was 13. It's always been on my to-read list but for some reason I've never got round to it. I'll do a review of White Teeth later (it blew me away) and will focus on Swing Time here, but I will say that by reading White Teeth first I got a true feel for Smith's writing and themes. Maybe I should have read Swing Time blind but I'm glad I read White Teeth first.

Anyway, everyone has been awaiting Zadie Smith's latest novel and the chances of her writing a bad one were very low. And Swing Time is not bad, it's exceptionally good, tackling such themes as friendship, race, culture, finding your 'tribe', religion, celebrity and more, all with Smith's typical dose of reality and humour.


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 friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.

Dazzlingly energetic and deeply human, Swing Time is a story about friendship and music and stubborn roots, about how we are shaped by these things and how we can survive them. Moving from north-west London to West Africa, it is an exuberant dance to the music of time.

Swing Time has themes about race and culture that Smith tackles face on, unlike a lot of writers who tiptoe around them, but with a humour that makes reading easier. A main theme in the book is about 'finding your tribe' and the main character, who is never named, constantly feels she doesn't quite fit, especially being mixed race and viewed by society as neither one thing nor the other. I'm not going to pretend that I know what that feels like, being white and boringly middle class I've never had to tackle the things that the main character does. But I do think everyone, regardless of race, age or background, can understand trying to find where you fit, and so I felt for the narrator and Tracey.

Having said that, I found neither the narrator or Tracey entirely likable. They are brilliantly fleshed-out, like all the characters in the book, and with their family and background you really get a feel of their characters.
Yet, I found the narrator sometimes difficult to like, finding her apathetic and sometimes a bit of a pushover. Her mother calls her a coward at one point, and I think she's right.

Tracey, is difficult to like but for different reasons. Yet, I still felt such compassion for these two girls, especially when they're young but as they grow too.

I really like how Smith captures friendship in Swing Time, especially childhood ones. Often these friendships are formed for shallow reasons or convenience; they live close by, they're in the same class, or in this case, they're the only brown girls in their dance class. These friendships can last for years, but really only based on convenience. Yet, they can become complex and deep, with people with very different personalities tied together by circumstances.

The two girls in Swing Time share a passion for dance, which is another main theme through the book and something that they bond over but also use to manipulate and torture each other.

I found a really refreshing and informative view of dance in this book. I love that the girls bond over the old musicals, Swing Time of course being one of the main ones. But they also love contemporary dance too, with Michael Jackson being one of their heroes. It shows the timelessness of dance, as well as the freedom it provides.

"A great dancer has no time, no generation, he moves eternally through the world, so that any dancer in any age may recognize him."

I did have a few small issues with the book though, which made me minus one star. One is the slow prose and the jumps in time, which I sometimes found difficult to follow and to anchor myself in the text. I also think Smith got into the second story-line, that of Amiee and the school, quite late and it could have been brought in earlier to make it connect a bit better.

These are my only quibbles though and I stayed up until three in the morning to finish Swing Time, which I can only do if I;m actually enjoying a book (and suffering from insomnia).

My rating: 4 stars

Swing Time was published on 15th November.

I received a copy of Swing Time via NetGalley on a read to review basis. My thanks to the Penguin Books and Zadie Smith.

Review of Swing Time by Zadie Smith

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