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Swing Time by Zadie Smith

December 29, 2018

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This was the year I finally got around to reading a Zadie Smith novel. Although I’ve known her as one of the top living writers of serious literary fiction and have had her White Teeth on my shelf for over a decade, I’ve haven’t read anything of hers beyond an essay or two.

Swing Time is the story of an unnamed female narrator who grows up in a London suburb. She and her best friend, Tracey, are passionate about dance, about performance, obsessed with Michael Jackson and Fred Astaire. They are two peas in a pod as kids, but drift apart as they come of age. The narrator becomes the personal assistant to Aimee, a white, A-list pop star fixated on building a girl’s school in west Africa (think Madonna). Tracey’s path takes her in another direction.

This novel is about how people get to where they end up in life—about the economic status, race, education, family relationships, personal drive and talent. It’s about the various power dynamics that exist—both global and interpersonal—and all of the currents and pressures that define who and what people ultimately become.  Big themes, but examined through personal stories, messy plotlines and realistic relationships.

I didn’t love this book, but I definitely admire the craft of the writing and the well-rendered relationships. A good portion of the story is dedicated to the narrator’s job as personal assistant, which moves the plot along and gives it a pop culture-level relevance, but ultimately feels less insightful and a little empty—both for the narrator and the reader. Although a white pop star trying to save Africa seems like a familiar character in our world, Smith avoids making Aimee into a stock parody. Still, the relationship between the narrator and her friend Tracey has more to offer.

I’ll probably dig into White Teeth next.

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