by Zadie Smith
Two brown girls dream of being dancers – but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, black bodies and black music, what it means to belong, what it means to be 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.
Bursting with energy, rhythm and movement, Swing Time is Zadie Smith’s most ambitious novel yet. It is a story about music and identity, race and class, those who follow the dance and those who lead it . . .
This book took me over two weeks to finish and if I take longer than a week it usually means that I’m not enjoying it. I didn’t hate “Swing Time”, but it didn’t keep me engaged or interested in the story as much as I would have liked. Now looking at a couple of other reviews, I’m glad I’m not alone in feeling this way.
We never find out the name of the leading lady which may have had something to do with my inability to connect with this book. She’s a young mixed-race woman growing up on an estate in London. The unnamed narrator wasn’t someone I felt I could warm to; I didn’t care much for her personality, habits or actions. I’ve read about her life for 400+ pages but I still don’t feel like I really understand her.
“Swing Time” jumps between times and places. It begins at school in the 80s, where the narrator and her friend Tracey have joined a newly formed ballet class. Tracey is a promising dancer, her friend has two flat feet and lacks a natural talent for dance. When Tracey accepts a place at dance school, their friendship begins to drift apart.
This was a promising start and the school days really were the best parts of this book for me. When the narrator later starts working as an assistant for demanding celebrity Aimee, I lost interest. Aimee wants to build a school in West Africa, so that’s where the story heads, still flicking between the past and present. As I found the pace in these chapters to be slow, I began skimming, always keeping an eye out for chapters mentioning Tracey, a much more interesting character in my opinion.
I did like how Smith delved into the differences between us as human beings. She looks at everything: race, location, wealth, class, education, and how our experiences always differ from each other. She looks at the difficulties of finding where you belong in the world and it’s clear from the style that the author is a talented writer. I only wish I had enjoyed the overall book a bit more.
Overall rating: I found that this book didn’t work for me. I enjoyed the first few chapters but I felt like I couldn’t connect with the main character while jumping back and forth in time. I’d have loved a book with a little more Tracey and a little less Aimee, a little more school days and a little less plodding along building a school in Africa. After wanting to read this for so long, I’m sad to say it’s 2 stars for Zadie Smith‘s “Swing Time”.
See my other reviews of books by Zadie Smith here: