Swing Time reminds me of a book one should read for an English or literature class in high school or college. It was deep, meaningful, and perhaps too smart for me at times. The final 40% was very strong and gripped me, but I struggled at first with this one, but I am very glad I read it.
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The summary, from Amazon:
A New York Times bestseller * Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction * Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize
An ambitious, exuberant new novel moving from North West London to West Africa, from the multi-award-winning author of White Teeth and On Beauty.
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 in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.
Tracey makes it to the chorus line but struggles with adult life, while her friend leaves the old neighborhood behind, traveling the world as an assistant to a famous singer, Aimee, observing close up how the one percent live.
But when Aimee develops grand philanthropic ambitions, the story moves from London to West Africa, where diaspora tourists travel back in time to find their roots, young men risk their lives to escape into a different future, 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.
A to Z Reading Challenge
I chose this book for my 2021 AtoZ Challenge, created by Bookstacks n Golden Moms. This qualified for “S” as well as the February mini-challenge of “a book with non-romantic love (siblings, parent-child, friendships).” I finished this one in March but because I started it in February, decided it still counted.
Buy Swing Time here.
Swing Time is written in a very interesting style that took me a little while to get used to. At times the story is linear, while in other moments one chapter takes place in the narrator’s past and the other in her more recent past. The chapters, though, are all related in theme.
What struck me the most about this book were the friendships and connections, and which were maintained and which were lost. While Tracey eventually wreaks havoc on the narrator’s life, she always will feel a deep connection to her childhood best friend – and how accurate this is! How much I feel I have in common with those I knew in childhood, even compared to those I am close with now.
Swing Time also analyzes the fact that we all want to be and do something, and that only those with power can truly be and do what they want. The narrator’s pop star employer is the only character who can truly grasp anything she wants to be – a humanitarian, a dancer, a mother. It is only when Aimee feels that the narrator has become a lover to a character Aimee thought herself to be the lover of that their friendship is ended.
Honestly, the most stunning this about Swing Time did not strike me until writing this view. The narrator is never named. There are so many characters in this story, each with their own striking effect, that this was something seamless and perhaps unimportant. I never needed to know her name, and so it never struck me that I did not. In fact, the past two paragraphs really were things I thought of in writing this review. This is one that you need to think about and sit with for sure.
Zadie Smith obviously told a thought-provoking story, though I wasn’t always a fan of her writing style. Some of her paragraphs took two or three Kindle pages for me to get through. I’m not a fan of large paragraphs. They can feel rambling to me, though I suppose that tone was appropriate at times.
Overall, this was a great book, but one that takes a lot of concentration. In reflection I feel like I should up it to 4 stars, but I did struggle to get through it until the final 40%, so I’ll stick with that 3 star rating.
Find out more about how I rate books here.
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Swing Time is one of those books that for the first half, I genuinely felt I may not be smart enough for it. Scenes and times change between chapters, and often I had trouble focusing and realizing where we were. But by the final 40%, I was in the groove and able to devour the rest of the novel. The messages I took away from this one were about friendship and connection in their many forms, genuine and fake, and how and why these relationships last or don’t last. This is also a great examination of how only those in power can truly achieve every whim and desire.
Book Club Questions
- Is the narrator obsessed with Tracey? Why does she continue to keep up with her and seek out connection to her?
- Do you think Tracey really see the narrator’s father doing what she claimed she saw? Why or why not?
- How are all of the narrator’s relationships (with Aimee, Hawa, Fern, Lamin, her mother) similar and different to her relationship with Tracey?
- Is Tracey justified in her anger and in the demands she makes in the emails she sends the narrator’s mother?
- What is the significance of the title Swing Time?
- At what point did you realize the narrator was unnamed? Why do you think she is unnamed?
Interested? Buy Swing Time.
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