"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"--
I am a fan of Smith. A much savvier reading friend put me on to her through [On Beauty], the story of two families mixed histories. I wish she still wrote for the Guardian Reviews about other people's books. I thought the only problem with The Embassy of Cambodia was it was too short, and NW struck all sorts of memories about living in London. So that is a really longwinded way of saying that I was really pleased to get a Netgalley for this book.
Told exclusively from the perspective of one young woman, child of a white working class guy and a woman from Jamaica who is so determined to pull herself up she has all but forgotten her daughter is there too. [Swing Time] is a reference to the musicals which she watches with her friend Tracey, a gifted dancer. Those dances, the films, and their music, recur throughout the book as the narrator reflects on her family and 'race'. Tracey's dad left long ago, and her mum is not working, 'on benefits', with a 'Kilburn facelift'. Smith catches the differences between a certain kind of aspirational family and a kind of working class one: including the firm belief from parents that children can be somehow convinced that not having a particular doll is a *good* thing (fail).
The story leaps between the narrator's childhood and her employment as a PA to an Australian singer-actress: long famous, young despite her years, fiercely fit and capable of dropping people without looking back. The singer, Aimee, decides to fund a school in Senegal. Our narrator is the pathfinder, exploring the options for supporting a girls' school, spending long periods in the Senegalese village to make plans with a more experienced development worker. And here her job gets horribly complicated. Smith nods to the freight of a British -Jamaican in West Africa: she visits the slave castles, tries to imagine herself back in time. But in the village she is given oven chips instead of sharing the family rice, not permitted to work or help, and treated firmly as an outsider. It was here that I most loved this book. Smith puts her finger on so many development gremlins: subtly and smartly, not offering glib solutions just raising things to the light and saying 'this is really odd: what is going on here?' The bit at the end might sound far fetched but for the news of celebs and their 'African adventures'. Smith lets no one off lightly.
Forward to the future, our narrator is an assistant to popular dancer/singer, maybe a Brittany Spears type of entertainer who wants to build a girl's school in West Africa. We go back and forth in time, the past, the present in Africa. I should have loved this part but I found the characters flat, our narrator little changed from her youth, and the pacing incredibly slow. It is hard to overcome the fact that a secondary character, Tracy is so much more interesting, that the parts that include her are interesting, while the other characters just seem wooden.
Cultural identity is explored, old movies, dance but not as much as the title of the book leads is to believe. I found myself skimming, never a good thing, and at the end there were a few redeemable things. I will try to read another of her books, as I said the prose itself was worthy, just wished for more interesting aspects in the plot itself. There are many four and five star reviews for this book, keep in mind, this is just my reaction to it and may not be yours.
ARC from Netgalley.
Swing Time feels like two novels mashed together. The parts set during the narrator's childhood are fantastic. They feel true and they make for fascinating reading as both girls grow up. They are both interracial girls living in housing estates who share a common interest, but there the similarities stop. The narrator's mother is driven to better herself, to get a degree and to change the world and her father is loving and present. Tracey is being raised by a single mother who is harshly judged by the neighbors for first being lazy and then, after she finds a job, for leaving her daughter alone too much. But Tracey's house is freer and her mother more present in her life than the narrator's.
The other part of the book concerns a famous rock star who is interested in Africa and who sends the narrator there to keep an eye on the school she founds. The narrator's experiences in the unnamed African country don't quite reach the level of Westerner-touched-by-the-simple-lives-of-the-natives, but it's not comfortable reading. And the parts involving the Madonna-like Aimee were interesting, but fell short of the other part of the book.
Still, this is an interesting book by a gifted writer and worth the time spent with it.
Unable to make dance her career, the narrator instead goes to university and later gets a job as assistant to Aimee, an international pop star. Even here, the narrator sees herself as more a confidant and friend than an employee despite being reminded of her status on several occasions. Although Aimee is white, she has adopted African children and has decided to build a school in a small village in Africa. Aimee, herself, is less interested in the actual building and running of the school as she is in the acclaim it brings her and later, the much younger man she takes as a somewhat reluctant lover. Instead, the narrator is sent to oversee things. Here she meets Hawa, a young woman who takes over the role that Tracey had filled in her youth albeit in a much more even relationship.
This is definitely a novel about women. Men tend to be on the periphery of the story. The narrator’s white father whom she adores is seen as inferior intellectually by her mother who sees herself as a community leader and who eventually tells him to leave; Tracey’s black father is rarely around; the village men have mostly left to seek better opportunities elsewhere; Fern has unrequited feelings for the narrator and eventually betrays her; Aimee’s young lover is in love with Hawa who sees him only as a friend; and Hawa becomes engaged to a man who never makes an actual appearance even after their marriage.
The title Swing Time is also interesting as it points to the fact that the story swings between two time periods: the narrator’s life as a child overshadowed by both her mother and Tracey and her years as Aimee’s assistant both in the west and in Africa as well as to the music and the films that she and Tracey love and the dance that they try to emulate.
If I had to sum up my feelings about this book in one word, it would have to be ‘brilliant’. It is beautifully written with lush prose and interesting characters who are complex and, for the most part, sympathetic. It explores race, class, heritage, privilege, and culture and how they help to form our identities and how those identities can be fluid eg the narrator is perceived as black in the west but white in Africa. This is not a fast book or an easy book but it is a wonderfully engrossing one and I recommend it highly.
Thanks to Edelweiss and Penguin Press for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review
This is my fourth book by Zadie Smith. In my opinion, she has never equaled her excellent first book, White Teeth.
A major plot point in the book is that Aimee builds a girls school in a West African village that the narrator plays a big role in returning to visit the village in what amounts to a parody of the sins of celebrity philanthropy. Similarly, the narrator's mother is a parody of the arrogant left-wing activist who only barely emerges as a flesh and blood character. Tracey is the most fully developed of the three characters as the narrator keeps trying to put her into boxes based on her low-income background, sexuality, and "wildness" but Tracey keeps defying all of that. I find that I enjoy Smith's writing style in this book but less interested in what Smith has to write about. The meandering quality of the narrative fits the aimlessness of the narrator but doesn't make it enjoyable to read.
The novel is set between London, England and a community in West Africa. The main character, who remains unnamed throughout the novel, is our narrator. Beginning when she is seven years old, she describes her attraction to and budding friendship with, another light-skinned girl of the same brown hue. Both girls dreamt of becoming famous dancers, and both were enamored with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and many other famous entertainment figures. As the narrator reflects back and forth over the course of her life for a period of about 25 years, we learn that each child followed their own paths, which soon began to diverge further and further apart from each other. In spite of their similarities, it was their differences which caused the angst and jealousy that divided them, like one having a two-parent family and one being more talented. Only a spark of their friendship remained alive as years passed.
Both girls lived in public housing; both attended dance class. Our narrator’s Jamaican mother viewed dreams of a career in the theater as a frivolous ambition, and she encouraged her daughter to study harder to achieve greater intellectual success and give up on a dance career. Tracey’s mom encouraged her daughter’s dreams of a career in the entertainment world. Eventually, Tracey’s career was cut short by the birth of her many children, and our narrator lives vicariously, spending her time working for Aimee, a famous singer/entertainer. She is her gopher. Traveling with Aimee, and attending to her every need, means she was no better than a maid, as far as her mom was concerned, and had, therefore, not improved her life in any meaningful way.
The family background of each girl was completely different. Our narrator lived in a home with a father and a mother present in her early years. Her white father was a postman. Her mother was educated and ambitious. She sought an education and a career as a community activist, trying to help others who were less fortunate, although she herself was not well off either. Her career flourished, and she was elected to serve in Parliament. She held herself above others and was sometimes resented. She considered herself more sophisticated, spoke well and dressed conservatively, as opposed to Tracey’s white mom who was of a lower class and never achieved anything but landing on the public dole. She was a flashier dresser with a coarse tongue. Tracey’s father was MIA.
Our narrator often resented her mother and her advice, and over the years their relationship suffered. Actually, our narrator did not make many permanent, close relationships with anyone, but rather she seemed to sabotage the relationships that got too close, often with inappropriate behavior or comments.
Aimee, her employer, was a woman worshipped by sycophants who forgave her mistakes and unethical, amoral behavior because she was rich and famous. When she attempted to help the Africans in a small and backward community by setting up a school, she often provided useless gifts. For instance, she sent TV’s, but they had no electricity; she sent toilets, but they had no plumbing, she provided computers before they had the ability to use or charge them. As our narrator traveled to Africa to help her boss in this endeavor, she hoped to get closer to her own identity, but she did not. She continued to cater to and live through Aimee, never developing her own life fully. She would one day become the victim of Aimee’s cruelty and discover that all races and classes have the capacity to hurt each other without a backward glance.
Neither Tracey nor our narrator achieved very much in the 25 years that were reviewed by her. Tracey was caught in the downward spiral of poverty because of the choice she made to have children prematurely. She took drugs and engaged in reckless sex. Her dreams of a dance career ended. Our narrator’s mom believed Tracey was unstable and was responsible for her own poverty and lack of success, and she then became the victim of Tracey’s cruelty, painfully discovering that no good deed goes unpunished.
Throughout the book race, wealth, education and, on occasion, even religion, were used as a means to compare and contrast the achievements some attained and the choices some made. Our narrator’s mother wanted to rise above race, to prove to the world that she could be successful, but even she had to face the failure of her efforts in the end. How many lasting relationships had she made? Did any of these characters have any real relationships that were lasting and true?
The book didn’t feel hopeful. Most of the tales were of some kind of failure. The narrator never found her true self or purpose. Her mother was often resented and unsung, and her work in Parliament went largely unnoticed. Aimee, the famous entertainer, was not really able to accomplish her goal to help the African community because her efforts were ill informed. While she decided to build a school for girls, she aroused the resentment of the boys who were now being neglected and the confusion of the general population regarding her gifts. Perhaps well intentioned, she was still misguided and her goals were unrealistic.
In the novel, the author name drops many famous people uniting the fictional with the real world. The single common thread pulling the story together is music. As the voices and bodies swing in time to the music, so does the story swing in many different directions illustrating the sharp differences that exist in society for class, race and status. There is light humor injected into the story, but it is not a funny story at all since it shines a light on how our perceptions influence our conclusions, often incorrectly. The book highlights the conflicts that people of color face among their own, and in the greater world among strangers. The effects of elitism, racial prejudices, wealth and power are illustrated for all walks of life. Jealousy and greed are pervasive in society, everywhere. In one group, certain bad behavior may be lionized, while in another group that same behavior will be condemned. In one group, certain acts are more easily forgiven because of the power of money and the influence of fame. It gives truth to the theory that it is not what you know, but who you know.
By contrasting the world of a backward community in Africa with that of a backward community in England, the reader’s eyes are opened. In order to escape the life they have, some will believe anything that portends to make things better for them; they are easily radicalized. They will follow a life that is not always good, but it is a life that provides them with an exit from their intolerable existence. Often, superstition, blind faith and a lack of education influence someone to make poor choices. Old ways simply conflict with the new. The poor accuse everyone of not understanding their problems while they do not understand their own responsibility for their plight; they accuse others of not doing enough for them even though they are not doing enough for themselves and, therefore, perpetuate their problems. The circle of defeat and failure continues downward because it is unbroken. Resentment, hopelessness and anger thrive.
I found an odd comparison between Tracey and Aimee which would be an interesting topic of discussion in a book group. Both women loved children, but one was looked down upon and condemned for her choice to have them out of wedlock and with no visible means of support, while the other was lionized for her choice to adopt a child although she never planned to raise the child herself, but had the means to hire help to be the surrogate. Fame and wealth spoke truth to power, and poverty and lack of distinction spoke truth to shame.
The narrator told the story in anecdotal bits which were sometimes confusing in the audio. I suggest reading the print version of the book. I was a bit put off by the author’s preoccupation with sex in almost every sketch related by the narrator.
The ultimate message of the book, for me, was that “People are not poor because they made bad choices, they made bad choices because they were poor”
The story moves easily between the childhood of the two girls and the later life of the narrator as she completes a media degree, joins the staff of the nascent British YTV, and later steps into the role of personal assistant (one of four) to Aimee, an international pop star and perpetual force in the celebrity culture. It is through the latter association, in one Aimee’s fits of generous enthusiasm, that the focus shifts to a small west-African village where Aimee is determined to build a school for girls. There is plenty of opportunity for misunderstanding and, at least for some, growth. Here our narrator slowly develops the moral and spiritual resources to dance like a native. Of course, merely getting in step with life won’t necessarily see you through. But it may prompt the crisis that pushes you onto the next part of your life, whatever that might involve.
The writing here is compelling, soulful and insightful in equal measure. Smith’s narrative voice never becomes overly familiar. The reader always feels like there is more to her. And the world around her, whether that be north London, New York, or west-Africa, is always being freshly revealed. Even characters who are problematic, such as Tracey or Lamin, or Aimee herself, are always a step beyond easy summary, or summary dismissal. I felt like I was fully immersed in the narrator’s life, even when that life was not such a comfortable place to reside. It is a lovely achievement for any writer.
The constant switching of narratives from the past, with its focus on Tracey, to the present, with its focus on Aimee, makes it difficult for you to become emotionally connected to either story. The switches are abrupt, and there is no minor cliffhanger to push you through each narrative to the next shift. They never fail to shock and unsettle you, even though you know they are coming, because the narrative itself has a rhythm that flows over you and fills you while you read. However, each narrative has a different rhythm, and it is unsettling to have to find that rhythm over and over again with each chapter.
At the same time, the narrator remains an unnamed bit player in the lives of these two larger-than-life people, even though the narrator is the one through which we see everything unfold. Even though she is intimately involved in every aspect of Aimee’s life, she is still an outsider looking in. As for her relationship with Tracey, there is nothing there that would indicate why they were such good friends throughout their childhood. In fact, one might debate the fact that they were not friends at all but more of a case of a minor obsession – all one-sided – between the narrator and Tracey. The same occurs later when she begins to work with Aimee. The feelings are never reciprocated by either woman, and the reader is left with the uncomfortable sensation of being privy to this failed attempt at friendships.
There is much in Swing Time about identity as well as a fairly biting commentary about celebrities who attempt to use their money and fame to promote their solution to a social injustice around the globe. Problems are so rarely solved by throwing money at them, and Ms. Smith does an excellent job reiterating this fact. Yet, the lack of connection with the narrator, Tracey, or Aimee makes the novel less powerful and more preachy. In addition, it remains difficult to adjust to the time shifts, leaving a reader constantly unsettled and racing to catch back up to the heartbeat of the storyline. While this may have been Ms. Smith’s intent, I found it distracting enough to make the novel fairly unenjoyable and difficult to read.
Swing Time is a novel I wanted to love but ended up being a novel I struggled to finish. This is not the fault of the language. The story is exquisitely written, with powerful and unambiguous prose. The problem lies with the characters and with how the story is told.
The narrator reminisces about her life after recently losing her job. Her childhood was spent as a poor, mixed race inhabitant of public housing in Northwest London, while most of her adulthood was devoted to globetrotting with her celebrity employer, but with a particular focus in a West African Village where her sponsor founds a school for girls. The narrator concludes that she is a passive observer who was influenced by much stronger women. “A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.” She shadows four such women: a childhood friend (Tracey); her mother; the celebrity (Aimee); and Hawa, an African village teacher. Yet each relationship fails in its own way. Tracey is everything the narrator wanted to be as a child: graceful, confident, and daring. Tracey clings to a dream of stardom as a dancer, but eventually ends up back where she started. The narrator’s mother is an autodidact who refuses to be defined by her class and race—she is a black émigré from Jamaica. She aspires to a career in politics and eventually succeeds. Aimee is a pop star in the Madonna mold, who rose from modest circumstances in Bendigo, Australia. In many respects Aimee is a successful version of Tracey. She is impulsive, highly talented, charismatic and confident. She is “a kind of child, accustomed to having every desire sated, every action praised, every idea celebrated.” Hawa also has a strong woman but is totally satisfied with her life teaching English to village children in remote West Africa. From her, the narrator comes to realize that, despite being comfortable in Africa among other blacks, she will always be an outsider there. Ultimately, she comes to learn that her African friends think of her as white. At one point, Hawa mistakenly tells her, "Even though you are a white girl, you dance like you are a black!"
As with “White Teeth”, SWING TIME is a rich and absorbing read, filled with Smith’s trademark worldview and humorous observations on pop culture. The narrative poses multiple existential questions, but maintains focus on the story and its main themes. Smith skillfully uses imagery to make subtle points (e.g., The African bird, the sankofa, looks back over its own body in much the same way that the narrator does.) If the book has shortcomings, these might be a plot that is too complex, a protagonist who is too passive and a narrative that is too eclectic. These often leave one with the sense that the novel lacks a compelling point of view. Yet in the final analysis, it is a wonderful read.
I was, therefore, feeling uncertain as I embarked upon this one, though my qualms initially seemed wholly allayed. The opening chapters tell of the unnamed narrator’s early experiences attending dance classes with her friend Tracey. Though ostensibly from a very similar background to the narrator, Tracey is viewed with great alarm by the narrator’s mother, who sees her as most likely a bad influence on her impressionable daughter. The narrator’s mother is an ardent autodidact, constantly striving to improve herself, and wary of anything that might threaten her daughter’s path to a better life. Zadie Smith captures these episodes marvellously, presenting them with a sharp plausibility.
As the story progressed, however, and the narrator found herself working as one of four personal assistants for a successful Australian singer (a sort of cross between Madonna and Kylie), I struggled to retain my interest. The story seemed to be following a roller-coaster path of peaks and troughs. Every now and then I would find my interest whetted sharply, only to have it beaten down again by a stretch that bordered on the tedious. Ms Smith does have a great facility with words, but I suspect that there was simply not enough material here to sustain a full novel, however beautifully expressed.
"I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.” Her position includes the expeditions of West Africa to help the start of a new school for the local girls, a school funded by the famous performer. Washington Post reviewer, Ron Charles point s out, "She is our Nick Carraway, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of wasted life. She’s burdened with superior insight that grants her nothing but a sharp sense of her own irrelevance — she never even tells us her name."
It's tough to match the splendor that was found in White Teeth, but I enjoyed the writing. Though I didn't love the book, it's worth reading anything by such a talented author.