Cover Image: Swing Time

Swing Time

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Member Reviews

I love Zadie Smith and after White Teeth, I couldn't wait to read this. Zadie writes with such conviction and I thoroughly enjoyed her latest book. It was a glorious form of escapism and I would highly recommend it to others.
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I appreciate this is very much behind the swing. Apologies. Sometimes books stick on my shelf for too long... I really love Zadie Smith's writing. On a sentence by sentence level, she's captivating. Reading this, however, confirms something I kind of already knew: I don't really enjoy her books as a whole. This really dragged for me. I never forgot that the characters were in a book, it never pulled me in and made me want to turn the pages. I felt at best disengaged, and mostly reluctant to pick it up again. Thanks so much for the opportunity to read it.
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Mixed feelings. The storytelling is really good here (I mean the both the technical, literary skills, and the ability to capture an emotion and a visual picture) - Ms Smith truly is a gifted writer. But the story itself is boring. I tried to find another, kinder word to substitute for "boring", yet there is none - this is book of a person somehow, hiddenly obsessed by herself, even if she does not know about it. She (the narrator) does not see herself as a person, she is able to see herself only in relation to somebody else - and the "elses" are mostly female figures (plus some kind yet weak male figures as her father, Fern, who is in love with her and (maybe) enigmatic Lamin). And these females are strong a nd complicated and all of them have complicated, difficult relation to our narrator - her mother, her best friend (to whom she is connected more like to a difficult, yet somehow beloved sister), her celebrity employer Aimee (Madonna-like superstar, even with the adoption link). 
It is some kind of autobiography, but with all of the rich connotation I don´t know what is her life about and where she goes. She does not know, too. And maybe this is the sad fact of our lives. 
Yet - in all of the balast and "balast" about the hard life, race connotations and the lack of meaning there are hidden pearls of wisdom and/or emotions truly perceived. Ms Smith does know how to write, truly. What is missing here is the "about", the reason to write this book. And maybe this lack of reason is the reason to write this kind of book, to show the meaningless of life. But for me the stories should bring more.

I recommend another of her books, Write Teeth, for reading.
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Moving, transporting and unlike anything I've ever read. It seems I forgot to post a review of this one before I took a hiatus (stress and all) but Swing Time still sticks in my mind of one of my greatest reads and a novel that challenged me. I still wonder; why was told in the way it was, what was the significance of everything, and why did it turn out that way? 
As my first Zadie Smith novel, it was the start of an awesome adventure of moving stories and unforgettable reads.
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Everyone loves Zadie. Her writing conjures up images of Willesden/North London/Africa/New York to the reader like no one else I know. 
However, I found it hard to empathise with the characters and to understand their motives. Not my favourite Zadie Smith.
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A witty and insightful novel, with a detailed and complex plot.
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Love. Love. LOVE. That’s it. Just love.
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Although personally I did find some flaws when it comes to the overall construction of the story and I definitely not enjoyed the fact that it was obvious the intention of the author in creating some conflicts and some parts of the identity discourse, I definitely enjoyed the beautiful writing and the many stories, part of the narrative.
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I really enjoyed this book set in North West London, an unidentifed African country and New York.  I wanted to kick the main protagonist a couple of time to get her to wake up and smell the coffee but a good page turner.  tumblr link to follow in due course.
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**** A prodigiously talented writer who became a best seller with her first novel White Teeth in 2000 at the age of 25, Zadie Smith has gone from strength to strength.
Swing Time examines female friendship, class and race and the way none of can ever really know ourselves, yet alone another person. The novel moves from council estates in north-west London where the narrator and her best friend, Tracey attend the same dance class, to success (or what is viewed as success) in dance or politics or music, and back again via a Madonna-like international pop star and her  bid to create a school for girls in West Africa and to adopt a baby.
An ambitious novel, long-listed for the Booker this year, the novel is over-long but still a great read. Truthful, perceptive and, in spite of its exuberance, ultimately very sad.
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I studied White Teeth for A-level and although I still believe it to be a masterpiece, it did rather complicate my relationship with it.  There's nothing like repeated rereads over a short space of time and compulsory class discussions for muddying your own personal views on a book.  I swear this is why so many people finish school hating Shakespeare.  Smith was something of a wunderkind when she wrote White Teeth as a young woman studying at Cambridge and she quickly became one of those authors whose every new novel is an event.  Somehow or other though, I always seemed to miss the party - until now.  Swing Time is Smith's fifth novel and also marks the first time she has ever used the first person, with a nameless narrator guiding the reader through what has many of the elements of a classic Bildungsroman.  Chaotic and as crowded as White Teeth, Smith returns her to familiar themes of race and class and personal identity, but this time she does it with rhythm.

We begin with a public shaming, the narrator bolting from the waiting press and paparazzi to a safe location and wondering quite how it is that she got to this point - the end of the line.  Reflecting, she looks back to her early childhood, daughter to a white father and a black mother.  Starting at dance classes, she met Tracey, who is also biracial.  However, the girls are in many other ways mirror images.  Tracey actually has genuine dance talent while the narrator is flat-footed.  Tracey is fickle, her emotions turn on a coin, while the narrator is diffident and lacking in confidence.  Even their families are opposites, with Tracey telling the narrator that her parents are the 'wrong way round', since 'most' people have a black father and a white mother.  The narrator's father is devoted to her mother, while Tracey insists that the reason why her father is not around is because he has to be Michael Jackson's backing dancer.  Tracey's mother centres her life around that of her daughter, while the narrator's mother is searching for fulfillment, educating herself and serving the community while distancing herself from the domestic side of life.

Self-improvement is a major theme of Swing Time - the narrator's mother s determined to get herself and her family out of the council estate via the medium of education, discussing at length with her daughter about the opportunities once closed to her which she expects her child to take advantage of.  The narrator rebels, deliberately sabotages her chances of getting into a grammar school and chooses a degree which she knows to be mediocre, then watches her mother's triumphant ascent to power.  Tracey wants to be a dancer, to make it big on the West End but although the narrator imagines that her stage school life must be perfect, the truth is more obscure.  After university, the narrator stumbles into a job as first assistant to age-defying pop star Aimee (very, very thinly-veiled depiction of Madonna) who has made it from an Australian slum to being one of the globe's biggest mega stars.  Yet still, the fact that not all people can change is underlined by how the narrator's maternal uncle never budges from his original home, her father keeps the same job and that at the end of the novel, Tracey's mother is still based in the same flat.

What is striking is how none of Smith's characters achieve success independently.  The narrator's mother has various help-meets over the decades which span the novel, with one former partner dumped but acknowledged to be a superb administrator.  Mega star Aimee dismisses those who claim that motherhood holds them back, claiming her own success a 'single mother' as proof, apparently blind to the three assistants and long-term sidekick Judy who hide from her the realities of real life.  She believes the only barriers to reinvention are failures of personality.  Watching Tracey onstage in South Pacific, the narrator later spots Tracey's mother arriving in the car to pick her daughter up, with two sleeping children in the back seat.  Only through her mother's sacrifice can Tracey's career continue.  Swing Time maintains a kind of ambivalence around whether leaving home and reinventing spells true success though.  The narrator lives a rootless existence, having no close friendships since those who try to be close to her are more likely to be actually trying to get in with Aimee.  She travels from place to place by private jet and is defined to all who know her as a point of access to Aimee.  Returning to visit Tracey as an adult, she is surprised at the happiness within her former friend's home.

As with White Teeth, the parts of the novel which resonated with me the strongest were the descriptions of growing up in late 1980s/early 1990s childhood.  I too attended dance classes as a child.  Smith takes the mundane realities of this life and waves a wand and makes them somehow Dickensian in their absurdity and disarray.  The intensity of childhood friendship is also conjured up here vividly - there is something about the best pal from the primary school years which is never again matched in life.  Tracey and the narrator lie on their tummies and watch vintage musicals but while the narrator loves the music, for Tracey it is all about the dance.

Although she no longer lives there, Smith is definitely an author who is able to write London well.  Less successful was her rendering of the African village where she sends the narrator when Aimee decides to open up a girls' school there.  Smith feels less confident in how she fleshes out her characters here and although I could see that I was intended to connect with the local girl Hawa, somehow I did not.  The narrator compares the village to the estate she grew up in and reaches no firm conclusions.  She is frustrated by the ingrained attitudes and inequalities, but then caught off guard by the contrasting attitudes within her colleagues.  Aimee's African American bodyguard Granger becomes very popular with the villagers and becomes quickly smitten with their way of life.  Where the narrator sees ' deprivation, injustice, poverty, Granger saw simplicity, a lack of materialism, communal beauty'.  He reflects with 'genuine tears in his eyes' that he would have had a far happier childhood had he been raised by fifteen different women rather than one stressed and unhappy single mother.  The narrator hovers, unsure of her status or even her race - what connection is she supposed to feel for this place?  She did not know and neither did I.

Madonna breaks ground on girls' school in Malawi. The project was later abandoned.
The characters' presence within the village is uncomfortable.  Their hosts make a big effort to make them comfortable, providing electricity where possible and still the narrator finds things primitive.  When Aimee puts an appearance to view her investment, standards shift once more but Aimee does not appear to realise that she is not experiencing the same thing as everyone else.  Aimee's ideas for the school are wildly impractical - at one point even deciding that all of the girls are to have their own laptop despite the limits to the electricity available.  She announces that the school is to have an 'illuminated ethos', leaving the narrator to explain to the baffled people working on the ground that 'Illuminated' was the name of one of Aimee's albums, the one that the star believed had the most positive message.  The narrator longs for Aimee's attention and approval but begins to question the project - it is interesting, but Smith's critique of Western aid is hardly new and the African sections of the book feel slightly long-winded.

I think that the question that Smith was mulling over in this book was about how black culture can be appropriated, refashioned and then the original artists abandoned.  The narrator watches South Pacific, sees a character outed as 'mulatto', then checks the programme and sees that the actress playing this woman is from a mono-racial background.  She watches as Aimee becomes besotted with Lamin, a young Senegalese man, with Aimee making arrangements to have him brought back to America with her.  He demonstrates traditional dance, with these moves making into Aimee's new album, as does various elements of traditional Senegalese dress.  When cultural appropriation is suggested, Aimee is dismissive, pointing out that art is never appropriate.  The narrator is less sure and skips the album launch party.  However, a line is crossed when a baby girl from the village suddenly appears in Aimee's home.  Aimee has taken too much and it is from here that we loop back to the start of the novel, with the narrator thrown out of the gilded cage of Aimee's world.

It is interesting too though to see how even the narrator can make mistakes, upsetting someone by asking them if they knew much about their destination, then expressing surprise when they claimed not to have been, apparently assuming that African countries had no separate identities.  She can still offend just as Aimee offends her.  In the same way, the villagers see her as impossibly privileged, just as she views Aimee.  To the villagers, she is white but elsewhere in the world, she is black.  She pities the villagers, but they feel sorry for her in her loneliness.  The narrator appears to have achieved success but yet she has no emotional security - who is the victor?  The narrator does not want to be like her mother, or like Aimee, or even - really - like Tracey.  So what does she want?  With such a confused woman in charge of telling the story, it is hardly surprising that the book itself should feel lacking in clarity.

The central focus of this book is the rivalry and friendship between the narrator and Tracey.  Although their paths have long since diverged, the connection between the two remains unbreakable.  Yet because of all of the Aimee storyline, particularly given how convincingly tedious the Aimee character really is, this almost-sisterhood with Tracey lost the impact that it should have had and so the final section did not have the same meaning.  I was caught up in the swing of the story but when it drew to an end, things still felt incomplete.  This is not Smith's finest novel but she does write with her trademark intelligence and wit, raising interesting questions on how we view race in popular culture.  Swing Time was a book with a lot to say, but I feel that Smith could have done with streamlining to create a smoother story - if she had said less, it might have meant more.

Swing Time is not Smith's best novel - I have a feeling that particular honour still belongs to White Teeth.  However, it is worth remembering that even a middling book when authored by a good writer is still a rewarding read.  Swing Time did leave me thinking a lot about privilege, how the Aimees of this world take what they want and believe it to be theirs by right, but yet how this me-first attitude can leave them isolated and alone.  Aimee longs for connection, having her assistants as her paid best friends, just as Madonna has her Semtex Girls, but then unable to get the boy she is infatuated to love her back and so she buys a baby who is not hers and gazes into its eyes.  The narrator's mother ends up alone in a hospice, with her daughter unaware of her whereabouts, her only connection being the paid carer.  Does success have to come at the expense of a personal life?  Strangely, it was the book as a whole that I myself failed to connect with, the shadowy nameless narrator standing awkwardly to one side and observing the action without ever seeming to fully commit one way or the other.  Perhaps it is unsurprising that in a novel with so much dance, a flat-footed heroine would stumble rather than skip, leaving a feeling of a story gone slightly off-key.
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My thoughts on this title can be found as part of my August Reading Wrap-Up on my YouTube Channel:

It has also been featured in a haul video!
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Found this to be a difficult read - some interesting themes and messgaes, but the narrative didn't grip me and I felt the overall message was lost.
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I found the contrast between the narrator and Tracey to be really interesting and the ways in which their lives went on separate paths felt inevitable. I would have liked eve more about Tracey as I thought she was a very complex and interesting character.
The sections set in Africa gave an excellent idea of how seemingly good deeds don't always live up to their intentions and can backfire in many ways.
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This is the first book that I have read by Zadie Smith.  I thought the prose was really fantastic, so descriptive.  However the problem that I had was getting into the story, since it flits between past and present for most of the book.  I struggled with continuing, however I am glad that I persisted, because I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.
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In Swing Time, Zadie combines much of what I enjoyed in her earlier books (little quirks and tangents, characterization) with what I enjoyed in her later books (mature plotting, restraint in those details) to make a book that is entirely charming and a fun read.
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OBVIOUSLY something new from Zadie Smith would be good. But I didn't quite have this in mind.

I am white, and there are specific experiences within this book which I cannot claim to know. Yet parts of it are so deeply familiar to me. 
Central to Swing Time is friendship - the friendship between two young girls. More than anything, the novel speaks to the unparalleled intensity of young girls in friendship. It depicts the idolisation that occurs, the competitive spark between a BFF couple, the loneliness which one feels so deeply when you begin to drift apart in adolescence, the sense of being lost when you realise you are no longer truly friends. This is the part of Swing Time that speaks to me most, and I adore it.
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Another great book by Zadie Smith. Made me laugh and cry. Some great, well developed characters.
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Another Zadie Smith book that I'll happily recommend to those looking to step up from mass market.
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