Book Review: ‘Swing Time’ by Zadie Smith.

I received this ebook for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This is no way affects my opinion of the book. Quotes in the following review may differ slightly from the final published version of the book.

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I was excited to receive this book but unsure what to expect. I loved Smith’s White Teeth, but couldn’t get past the first chapter of On Beauty. I downloaded Swing Time with a butterflies in my stomach, hoping this would be something great.

It’s no White Teeth. The protagonist, whose name remains a mystery, is try-hard, selfish and unlikeable. She changes her personality depending on whom she is with, and shows little interest in anyone other than herself and her alleged friend Tracy, whom she is (often creepily) obsessed with. She’s uncaring towards her mother and behaves bafflingly towards the men in her life.

However, the story takes place throughout our protagonist’s life, switching between when her childhood growing up with Tracy, and her twenties working for Aimee, a celebrity she loved in her youth. As a young girl, our main character is much more palatable. She is vulnerable and unsure of herself, latching on to Tracy because of their similarity in skintone, feeling she has found someone she can relate to.

Apart from this shared background, though, I couldn’t work out why Tracy and the main character were friends. Tracy is, to put it a bluntly, a massive bitch. It is hinted at that some trauma in her past has made her this way, but the way I see it, she was like that from the moment we were introduced to her.

I did enjoy the story. I enjoyed it most at the very beginning of the book, and feel like if I had been allowed to read the story in chronological order, I would’ve gotten on better with it. However I felt it had a big dip in the middle where I couldn’t be interested in it because it kept skipping back and forth, and to be honest I just wasn’t interested in the main character as an adult. She had so much more substance as a child.

I loved the references to West End shows, and the two girls’ passion for music and dance really shone through. This was one thing that really stood out for me. In most novels, people’s hobbies aren’t really given much thought, but the love you could feel in the writing for certain performers felt so real (presumably because Smith loves these performers herself).

…my father had told me a story about Fred Astaire once coming to Michael’s house, coming as a kind of disciple, and he had begged Michael to teach him the moonwalk, and this makes sense to me, even now, for a great dancer has no time, no generation, he moves eternally through the world, so that any dancer in any age may recognise him. Picasso would be incomprehensible to Rembrandt, but Nijinsky would understand Michael Jackson.

Zadie Smith is a fantastic writer, and there are many lines that I read more than once just to savour the combination of words:

What do we want from our mothers when we are children? Complete submission.

Oh, it’s very nice and rational and respectable to say that a woman has every right to her life, to her ambitions, to her needs, and so on – it’s what I’ve always demanded myself – but as a child, no, the truth is it’s a war of attrition, rationality doesn’t come into it, not one bit, all you want from your mother is that she once and for all admit that she is your mother and only your mother, and that her battle with the rest of life is over.

It’s so well-written. I just feel the plot is lacking, and I didn’t enjoy the main characters. If the story had been all about Tracy and the protagonist as children, I might have loved it. I was loving it, up until it started to be all about Aimee.

I want to read White Teeth again.

My Rating: 3.5/5

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