Swing Time by Zadie Smith

I really wanted to like this book and I had been looking forward to reading it since I picked up my copy. I love the jacket and thought the blurb sounded great. Unfortunately this novel did not live up to expectations and I didn’t really enjoy reading it. It wasn’t bad, by any stretch – there are some wonderful bits of writing and some interesting, nuanced characters – but somehow these things didn’t add up to a great novel.

The first thing I would say is that the jacket copy made me think this book was going to be about something that it wasn’t. I don’t normally copy out what the blurb says but I’m going to this time because I actually feel that it is quite misleading:

Swing Time is about two brown girls from Willesden who dream of being dancers. Only one – Tracey – has the talent. But the other has ideas which take her further than she could ever have imagined.

This is not the whole thing so you can’t judge it completely on these three sentences. However to me these lines are rather inadequate even for just explaining the basic plot. The beginning does start with ‘two brown girls from Willesden’ going to dance classes yet I felt that very quickly it becomes apparent that neither of them are actually going to be dancers. And I also have a problem with the line ‘the other has ideas which take her further…’ because to me it seems like she doesn’t have any ideas at all – she just falls into her job, as one of many she applies for, and then it seems purely luck that she is selected by Aimee, to be her personal assistant. I don’t have a problem with the reality of this as I think this is pretty much how most people get their jobs and to be honest this fact-checking of the blurb is not really important. It’s just that the expectation of something else, a different kind of story, added to my general dissatisfaction with this book. Until I was about half way through I felt as though I was waiting for the ‘real’ story to start; the realisation that this was the story was a bit disappointing.

My other main criticism of the novel was that I think there is too much going on and Smith has tried to write about everything, when she would have been better focussing on a few things and writing about them well. The story is set in London, New York and West Africa and it spans approximately three decades. This is a lot of time and space to handle. Then there are the multiple facets of story and characters that, combined in one novel, seem just a bit overwhelming: motherhood and the comparison between Tracey’s mother and the main character’s mother, fatherhood and the comparison between Tracey’s father and the main characters’s father, attitudes towards race and the experience being mixed race, the experience of growing up, poverty in the UK, poverty in West African countries and the way countries and wealthy individuals in the West tend to throw money at it without really caring to see whether it will actually help, cultural appropriation, exploitation (of all of the characters in some form or other at some point), excessive wealth, celebrity culture, passivity and activism, female friendship (or in my opinion, the lack of it), class (in the UK and in West Africa), gender roles, stereotypes and expectations, I could go on. There are still more things I haven’t mentioned. TOO MANY THINGS.

While there are definitely moments of fantastic exploration and expression, the novel moves so quickly onto the next thing that it’s hard to keep track. And for me, this also made it very difficult to feel any connection with any of the characters. I realised that I didn’t really care about any of them or what was going to happen next. I also found the main characters’ passivity towards pretty much everything quite hard to relate to. I’m sure there’s an important point being made about that very thing but quite frankly the novel did not encourage me to think critically about it. Instead I was just quite pleased to get to the end.

It does feel a shame to be so critical of this novel but I really couldn’t recommend it. If you’ve not read anything by Zadie Smith before, I would direct you towards White Teeth or NW instead, which are much better books. Give this one a miss.

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