I received Swing Time in exchange for an honest review.
This was my third Zadie Smith novel, I read White Teeth and On Beauty a number of years ago and really enjoyed them, so I went into this with high expectations but found the story fell a little flat. I’m not sure if it’s Smith’s writing that has changed or my taste as a reader.
There’s lots of good about this novel – Smith’s writing is as witty and on point as always, yet the overarching story felt like it didn’t quite live up to it’s own aspirations. However, it is peppered with pearls of wisdom, insightful anecdotes and poignant sentences that had me going back and re-reading just to get the full impact.
Ironically, for a novel which explores themes of identity, our main character and narrator is nameless and a little bland, content living in shadows of more powerful characters. I have to say I struggled to understand some of the choices she made, she seemed happier observing others than building meaningful relationships for herself. It was the two women she was closest to, Tracey and Aimee, who were much more intriguing, powerful and emotive, and I wish they had been explored a little more.
The story begins during the narrator’s childhood, when she forges a strong friendship with Tracey, the only other mixed race girl in her dance class. The girls are initially drawn together due to their similar looks; “Our shade of brown was exactly the same – as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both.” Their friendship grows as they discover they have more in common, including a shared background growing up on a London council estate and their passion for dance. But it’s clear that it’s Tracey who has the real talent.
As the pair grow older they drift apart and we follow our nameless girl as she works, firstly as an assistant in television, then as an assistant for Aimee, a pop star who she admired when she was young. Aimee is a globe-trotting star with big aspirations and a larger-than-life personality, and one of her many side projects is the opening of a school for girls in a Gambian village. It’s through their visits to Africa that the main character begins to learn more about culture, and herself.
This book has so many great elements – an authentic friendship, bold characters, an exploration of other cultures and intelligent writing – and yet it doesn’t quite come together. The story flits between past and present, and our main character’s two friendships from both her past and present, and yet her own personality is too weak to hold it all together. There’s some important, insightful messages in this book, but I just wish the voice sharing them had been a little more engaging.