2/5 stars. Contemporary, Adult, Class Struggle, Racism.
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 childhood friendship that ends abruptly, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.
Tracey makes it to the chorus line but struggles with adult life, while her friends leaves the old neighborhood behind. The story moves from London to West Africa, where diaspora tourists travel back in time to find their roots, the women dance just like Tracey – the same twists, the same shakes – and the origins of a profound inequality are not a matter of distant history, but a present dance to the music of time.
*The main character is not given a name in this book so I am going to call the main character MC for short.*
The MC and Tracey are both dancers, but Tracey is the one with real talent. As her friend, and another brown girl like Tracey, MC has to learn to deal with being less than the best, always in the shadow of her friend.
Later, as adults, MC works for Aimee, a singer who tries to make projects to help other people – like building a school for girls in a third world country – that don’t end up working and she gets bored of anyways.
MC tries to discover who she is aside from these people and become an individual.
Swing Time has me in knots. I wanted to like it. And I did, some of the times, when the story followed Tracey and the conflicts between the two girls. The rest of the story didn’t really seem to fit, which made the story feel like a memoir – something that actually happened, instead of a story whose puzzle pieces were shaved to the exact right size to fit into each other.
Why was MC’s mother so politically active? Why did the father have relations with a doll? How did Aimee – a pop star who the MC worked for – fit into the story, and the other male characters who MC had relations with (or failed to have relations with)?
I didn’t know what to make of this, other than feel that there was definitely a goal here, but one that wasn’t reached, or maybe I just didn’t get it. Maybe the point was to evaluate how someone can struggle to become their own person when all the people around them are so strong, powerful, and have huge ideas about the world. Perhaps this is why the main character isn’t named.
The writing style is beautiful and I really had an idea of what happened, who Tracey was, and what it felt like to be a friend of Tracey’s. Each chapter felt like its own, individual short story, although I wondered some times if all the stories matched together and were planned effectively. We got a lot of Tracey at the beginning, and then suddenly, in a new chapter, there was this Aimee character, introduced as if this wasn’t the first time we had met her. I actually paused and took a moment to think if I had missed a chapter or been on the brink of sleep because I didn’t understand where this character had come from. The writing was beautiful and lyrical, even if the individual chapters sometimes felt like they were misplaced or missing an introduction.
The pacing for the most part was good, but I had some conflicts with Aimee. I wanted to read about Tracey, not Aimee and hoped for the sections with Aimee to be over. The pacing was good in all sections, slower than what I typically read (enough to allow for lyrical descriptions, but not too slow to become dull), but I did wish for sections with Aimee to end so I could see what was going on with this fantastic character Tracey, with her rebellious lofty goals, devious demands, and of course, dancing.
The book tried to make comments about race, gender, class, and so many more things, but I felt I couldn’t absorb the points Smith tried to make about them because there were so many elements competing for my attention.
I was fortunate to see Zadie Smith and listen to an interview with her a while back where she spoke mostly of this book and also other works. I learned that she is one of the greatest writers alive and I was left confused because I didn’t sense anything in Swing Time that moved me in the way I would expect a great to. Smith is also an essayist and I am left with the thought that perhaps she is a better essayist than novelist.
She made a comment that left me thinking, something along the lines of, “People seem to be losing the ability to read correctly. I will present my students with a book and they will get out of it the exact opposite of what the author intended! People have done this with Swing Time as well. There was one moment where I said something along the lines of, “You are the only person who can define you,” and people took that to mean that I believe that – but I don’t. I believe the exact opposite. I think we are shaped by everyone around us and their perceptions of us, but now people are taking that line and saying I believe that, and they are making it into something beautiful, something inspirational, but that is not what I intended.”
This made me think about my reading habits. I don’t sit down with a book and a pen, taking notes in the margins, rereading things. I hear of people who do, and most of them seem older. I’ll have a highlighter sometimes to mark lines I think a worded perfectly but I am more of someone who wants to experience it all and don’t want to waste my time on one text for an extended period of time. Maybe this is what sound bites and twitter posts are doing to our brains – making us spend less time with text. It is interesting to ponder.
Another thing Zadie Smith said at the interview was that she thinks the text needs to stand for itself. If people get something out of the text she didn’t intend – then that is what it means, like with the “You are the only person who can define you” quote I mentioned above. I agree with Smith. A lot of times in workshops, if the readers don’t get what the author meant them to, the author will go on the defense and say, “Well, you are wrong. THIS is what you were supposed to think about it.” If the author says, “This is what I meant to do. Any ideas on how to get there?” I think that can be helpful, but telling the reader they are wrong doesn’t take advantage of the workshop environment. The author will not be there by the reader if it is published, whispering in the reader’s ear exactly what they are supposed to get out of it.
I really enjoyed hearing Zadie Smith speak in person and wish I would have enjoyed her book as much as I did hearing her speak. I thought the book was, overall, disjointed, but with great writing and well developed side characters. I am interested in reading some of her essays to see if I think she is a better essayist than novelist.
Have you read other books by Zadie Smith or any of her essays? Tell me what you think of her!