Review: Swing Time by Zadie Smith

2017: 12
3 of 5 stars
Published November 2016

The book description tells you it’s about two brown girls who want to be dancers but only Tracey gets to follow her dream. The friendship ends suddenly but is not quite forgotten, either. It’s not really true. It makes you think the book is about Tracey or bouncing back and forth between Tracey and the narrator who, I don’t think, was actually named. In fact, it’s mainly about the narrator and Tracey only gets a look in once in awhile after they’re grown and living their own lives.

The narrator and Tracey become friends when they attend a Saturday morning dance class as girls and they become best friends. Tracey is determined to become a dancer and apparently has the talent. She succeeds to a point and does manage to dance on the stage in the West End (London). The Narrator ends up as in media studies and working for a television station before being hired as a Personal Assistant to pop star Aimee where she stays for nearly 10 years. She is then fired for something we don’t know until the end of the book.

Most of the book is told jumping back and forth in time from the present, to (at first) childhood with Tracey, through the years she spent with Aimee and the school project in West Africa. The friendship with Tracey ends abruptly for no apparent reason unless I missed it. They cross paths a few times over the next 10 years but it’s not as old friends catching up, more like “Oh I know you, don’t I?” That’s the impression I got. Tracey does have somewhat dubious contact with the Narrator’s mother who has become a politician and it seems Tracey’s life isn’t what she expected it to be.

The book explores issues of race, fame, charity, working class, ambition (or lack thereof). Some of the characters are good but neither of the main two are all that much. The Narrator is not that likeable, she tends to be defensive and whingey and passive. She comes across as a bit shallow and keeps her own emotions more or less at arms’ length which also makes it difficult to connect with her. Tracey starts off driven and ambitious, whose emotions are always close to the surface, and would have been more interesting to follow but is basically dropped. The Narrator’s mother is also ambitious for her daughter and for herself, studying and ultimately going into politics. Aimee seems to be a stereotype celebrity, the type often skewered in books, movies and tv, shallow, vain, thinking more about image than about being geniune and sincere, wrapped in the binding straps of fame.

I really loved Zadie Smith’s first book, White Teeth which had a lot of heart and I really liked her book, On Beauty, which also had a lot of heart. But many of the other books seemed to be less engaging, too meandering about, sometimes too stylized with characters you don’t care about. I think if this book had been from Tracey’s point of view and about Tracey’s life it would have been better. It was ok, worth 3 stars but edging down to 2.5 at times.

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