Many moons ago, back in the hot, hot summer of 2016, I popped over to Penguin. As an aside, my inner-bookworm-child still gets very excited by the fact that I know people at publishers, for what it’s worth. While I was there I was given a couple of books to review, because I love to keep reading. One of the books was Swing Time, the new novel from the national treasure that is Zadie Smith.
Swing Time is a book about so many things – class, race, dance, friendship – and it feels specific and universal, all at once. Incredibly readable with vivid, interesting, flawed characters, this is Smith writing at the top of her game. I love how she’s unafraid to write real characters and how she shies away from casting heroes and villains. The complexity and richness of the human experience and how we all react to and interact with one another fills each part and chapter.
The narrator of the book is never named, and this distance is fitting – as a character she always seems a little detached, a little distant. The other characters – Tracey, her erstwhile childhood friend; the villagers she encounters in Africa; Aimee, the popstar she works for – are all boldly drawn and described; the narrator is more shadowy and indistinct.
This opens up the story well – the narrator is half-black, half-white, and throughout the book we see her struggling and attempting to find a group who she identifies with and with whom she feels a pull, a bond. Contrasted with the vibrant activism and politics of her confident, ambitious mother, the narrator instead signifies all of us who are a little lost, who are trying to find a place to belong. Smith refuses to label and categorise, but at times you get the sense that a label, a box to fit into is exactly what the narrator desires.
I loved the portions of the books where Smith turns her pen to dance, and music. When Tracey dances, when the narrator sings, there’s a realness, a lightness, a higher-tilt to proceedings. As someone who has spent many an hour marvelling at classic movie musicals, the girls’ obsessiveness and love of movement spoke to me, and just as they danced side by side in that dusty church hall as children, their relationship and their journey is like a dance through time, covering continents and decades.
The narrative flits through times and locations, and here the shadowy nature of the narrator is particularly useful – a more decided, clearly drawn protagonist would feel out of place in a scattered, non-linear narrative. Just like the shadow Fred Astaire dances with in the film Swing Time, in the book our narrator comes to realise her own truth: “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.” This shadowy feeling allows the narrator access to walk alongside the reader throughout Swing Time, but also keeps us a little more at arms length. Which is just like the distance the narrator feels so often in the story – present, but not always part of things.
Swing Time is an interesting & timely book, and definitely one of the ones I’ll recall from 2016. I’m dying for a book group to talk about it with now!
Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book to review. All opinions, thoughts and ponderings are my own.