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Swing Time

My favourite thing about this book is the way it approaches serious problems with a light touch, while still granting them their gravity. A wonderfully dry sense of humour runs throughout the novel, constantly putting its reader and protagonist slightly off-balance as they are confronted with the many ways in which things never quite turn out how they’re supposed to. Zadie Smith has an extremely engaging way of presenting clearly the least likeable traits of her characters, and nonetheless making you root for them (at least some of the time).

Swing Time follows its narrating protagonist from childhood into her thirties, running along two timelines that begin to approach each other more closely as the story develops. The narrator meets Tracey at a dance class when they are both children, and as the only two girls of colour in the group, they are immediately drawn to each other. Tracey’s talent for dance is discernible from the first, as is her ability to command attention. The narrator less so – she is enamoured by all things dance-related, without any real ability for it (a lack of a natural gift sealed by the discovery of her flat feet). Relegated to the role of Tracey’s sidekick, she develops her bystander status further in later years, when the reader encounters her as having made a profession out of being a supporting act – as a personal assistant to Aimee, an enormously famous international pop star. Still, she remains borderline obsessive about her childhood friend Tracey, with whom there has been a falling out, though its details only emerge slowly.

Aimee’s megalomania leads her to think she can fix anything, and so she decides that she is going to help the poor in Africa (the idea is as general as helping ‘the poor’ in ‘Africa’, since the country and village she eventually selects seems more or less arbitrary, and are at least partially selected for their compatibility with attractive photo shoots). These sections of the book entail a caustic indictment on the white saviour complex represented by Aimee and her project to build a girls’ school in a West African village: the ignorance, the arrogance, the self-serving pseudo-benevolence.

Another compelling strand of the narrative is occupied with the narrator’s complex relationships with her parents: her father a working class white Englishman, her mother a self-taught intellectual of Jamaican descent who becomes a politician. In its portrayal of this relationship, the narrator’s childhood growing up on a London estate, as well as in Tracey’s never getting out of the estate flat she grew up in, the book is also an intelligent meditation on class.

Though the ending left me somewhat unsatisfied, perhaps it was in the nature of the stories this book told that a satisfying ending was never on the cards. And though some might find the lack of a genuinely likeable character, or the absence of a protagonist who is capable of taking charge of a situation frustrating, for me this was part of the charm of Smith’s skillful storytelling. Swing Time is smart, funny, and well worth a read.

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