Author: Zadie Smith
Pub date: Nov. 2016 (read Nov. 2018)
Okay, so despite it taking me literally months to read this book (super rare for me), I actually did really like it. This was my first Zadie Smith book and I can see why people tend to have a love/hate relationship with her. I don’t think this is one of her more well liked books, so I kind of wish I started with a different one, but oh well.
I actually really liked this story and style of writing, it’s just not a book you feel inclined to pick up again once you put it down. It wasn’t that I struggled to read it, there were several times I sat down and read 50 pages or more in one sitting, but whenever I would put it down, I would inevitably decide to start something else and this one always took the back-burner. It’s an interesting story, but at 450 pages, I just think it’s a bit too long for what was actually said.
But let’s get into it. Swing Time is the story of two black girls growing up in London. They both love to dance and have always been somewhat separated from their peers. They have a tumultuous childhood together. Tracee is bold and daring, thinking herself better than those around her, while the narrator struggles to really know who she is. They have a falling out after high school, but despite never really seeing each other again, their lives have a marked impact on each other.
Tracee goes on to become a dancer, while our narrator is hired to work as a personal assistant to a famous singer and dancer named Aimee. The narrator was a huge fan of Aimee’s as a child, but struggles with some of her decisions when becoming her PA. Aimee is very involved in international development and builds and supports a school in Africa, but she is blind to the privileges of her race and appropriates culture on more than one occasion. For Aimee, the world is all about her own indulgence and the narrator struggles with being a black woman in this environment,
There was so much going on in this book, and I can’t pretend like a lot of it wasn’t over my head. I was never really sure where Zadie Smith was going with the story and themes, but she includes some really thoughtful social criticisms in the book. I really enjoyed these thoughts and reading about them from the narrators experience, but they often just seemed disjointed. The whole format of the story is a bit odd. The timeline jumps around a lot, which wasn’t overly confusing, but I think it’s part of what made it a hard book to pick up again. There was never really much tension in the story. You wonder what happened with Tracee, but the story never seems to be working towards anything, so it was hard to have the motivation to pick it up again.
But the most interesting part of this book for me was the fact that the narrator doesn’t have a name! I’m not sure at what point I realized she didn’t have a name, but I kept thinking maybe I just missed it and it was driving me crazy not being able to remember what it was. But no, I’m not crazy, she does not have a name. Zadie Smith why doesn’t she have a name?!?! I feel like there’s some deep reason why she remains nameless throughout, but I do not know it and I want to know why! I wonder if it’s because her life was never really about her. The first half of her life was about Tracee and the second part of her life was about Aimee. Even when she moves on from both of these women, she is still caught up about Tracee. She seemed to have very little sense of self or character and her life totally revolved around those around her. We learn about her friends, family, and co-workers. but we never really learn that much about her and what makes her tick. She is very much an observer of the world around her and to an extent, an observer of her own life.
It’s an interesting relationship between the narrator and Tracee because I think that both are actually jealous of the other. In the end, neither girl is very successful, but I think the narrator has always been a little jealous of Tracee’s confidence and abilities, while I think Tracee is jealous of the narrator’s stable family life and parental relationships. Tracee is good at manipulating the world around her to get what she wants, and even though she is able to manipulate the narrator to an extent, it never really gets her what she wants. She is still a brown girl who has been abandoned by her father and faces substantial systemic oppression to success.
Like I said, this book includes a lot of social commentary on race and privilege, which was what I really like about it. I’ve worked overseas in international development and seen how disorganized development work can be. Everyone has their own agenda and for some reason people don’t think they need to converse with government agencies when working in poor countries. Everyone has an idea of what’s needed to “save Africa” or “eliminate poverty” and they’re all working to their own ends. Without coordinated efforts, systems break down and can actually be left in worse conditions than in which they started. So I understood a lot of the narrator’s frustrations with Aimee’s work and her development agency. Aimee very much embraced the white saviour narrative and it was f-ing annoying. Although, to be honest, almost everything about Aimee was annoying. She was so blind to her privilege. Tracee was annoying too, but at least she didn’t pretend to be anything but what she was.
Overall I would give this 3.5 stars. I quite liked it, but it was just too long and it lacked enough tension to keep me reading.