book review: Swing Time by Zadie Smith
Overview: Our unnamed narrator takes us on the journey of her life growing up in North London and eventually existing around the world from New York to Paris to Africa. We learn about her youth and her love for her childhood dance classes, even though she was never destined or encouraged to be the star. Her best friend, Tracey, however, had all the promise. Growing up in similar estates, spending most of their childhoods together, the girls seem like they'll have similar paths and opportunities, but the finer points of their realities cause their paths to sharply diverge. We follow this narrator from elementary school all the way until she's in her early thirties. Overall: 4
Characters: 4 The characters are by far the most compelling part of Smith's novel. I didn't actually realize that our narrator doesn't have a name. I'm so bad with remembering them in books, I just assumed I'd forgotten it. I'm not entirely sure what to make of Smith's choice not to give her a name other than it showing something about her truly just being a background player to Tracey, at least in her youth. Or perhaps it's a comment on her generally being defined by those around her. She's always the quieter one. She's not the dance star. When she goes to university, she's not given credit in her inner circle compared to her mom's deep commitment to educating herself all through the narrator's childhood. Then, in her job as a personal assistant to a pop star, her life is entirely absorbed in the whims of another person. Where she starts to establish her own thoughts, her own likes and dislikes, her own strengths, they are more like quiet whispers than real assertions. Even her relationships to those around her are muddy. This is something that didn't totally crystalize to me until after I'd finished the book. There is just so much book that it's hard to feel there's a lack in the narrator while reading, and her small observations are what make the books. I guess she mostly exists between the lines whereas those around her are much louder.
Tracey is mostly involved in the childhood portion of the book. She's bold, spunky, and proud of herself. She's clearly gifted as a technical dancer and takes quite a bit of pride in it. Whereas our narrator has a strict, self important mother who clearly cares deeply and a kind and invested father to meet her emotional needs, Tracey doesn't have the family support system. These small divergences in their otherwise similar lives set the tone for where their paths will end up diverging. The book definitely makes the point that raw talent is unfortunately rarely an indicator of who will ultimately succeed. As time goes on, we see less and less of Tracey and from a much less intimate point of view than before. It makes sense, but Tracey is such an interesting character that it's unfortunate to lose her for half the book. And without giving too much away, as realistic as it might have been, I was somewhat unsatisfied with how we left Tracey after how well we got to know her in the beginning of the book.
The second half of the book is mostly filled by people she meets as an adult as well as a loose tracking of her relationship with her mother. There's Aimee, the pop star, various members of her team, Lamin, a West African man who acts as a guide through Aimee's charitable works in his village, Fernando, another team member on the charitable work, and Hawa, a girl from the village that the narrator quickly bonds with. Of these characters, none of them have as much life and dimension as Tracey and the narrator's mother are given with the exception for Hawa. She is written with such a sense of affection that her journey stands out, even though it's a small portion of the book. None of the characters in the later portion of the book really leapt off the page as much as I hoped they would.
Plot: 4 As with many books that are 450 pages, it didn't need to be quite so long. For one, this feels like 2 separate narratives. There's the childhood coming of age story and then there's the narrator's adult life as this pop star personal assistant and what the charity mission in West Africa gives her. While they're somewhat connected, there's really a shift between the two parts of the novel, and I wish they'd had a stronger uniting link. Because it is so long, the book loses some of the tightness that made the dense, page long paragraphs and many small observations feel pressing and fascinating at the beginning. There's a section toward the later part of the book that just grows repetitive and a bit aimless feeling as it seems like Smith is trying to figure out how to link one moment to the next. I also don't entirely buy the choice the narrator makes as the catalyst to the ending of the novel. It just felt out of character and like a writer's move to serve their own needs instead of a natural progression for the narrative.
What I did like quite a bit was the first half of the novel, and I thought it was successful in its time jumping. I normally don't love the tactic, but I actually thought Smith was pretty masterful in how she hopped around multiple periods of the narrator's life and made them blend together and ultimately combine in a satisfying way. I never felt lost among the narratives, and it sometimes built anticipation for one timeline while you were in another segment. It's rare that this device actually works for me.
Writing: 4 This book is an endeavor. It spans such a long time, it has a long in page count, and the chapters are fairly long with paragraphs that take up whole pages. Smith gives none of the structural things that normally keep me pushing through a book and feeling like I'm succeeding with it, but still, I gave it my time whenever I was able. It felt dense, and it sometimes made my tired eyes blur, but there's something delightful in the way that Smith makes you see the world and crafts her lines and observations. Her writing itself and the occasional brilliant line is her own little way of propelling you forward. But the book felt like an undertaking nonetheless.
I have to say, reading a Zadie Smith novel has been on my reader bucket list for so long, so I'm glad to be able to check that off.
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