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Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Our narrator first met Tracey when they were young girls nervously waiting for their first dance class to start. Their friendship did not immediately become official, but they instantly felt drawn towards each other – not lest for being the only brown girls in the class. Two decades later, both lead very different lives: one far away from the housing estates they grew up in, the other never able to distance herself from her past. The girls share a passion for dance, but only Tracey has true talent. Our narrator, however, uses her determination to escape from her mother whose political ambitions and sense of justice exceed her desire from motherhood and finds herself a job in the entertainment industry: she becomes the personal assistant or the international phenomenon, pop-star Aimee. Set between London, New York, and Gambia, Swing Time is an ambitiously crafted story that explores topics of race, gender, and global inequalities, while constantly questioning traditional definitions of success. As readers we are taken on a journey between continents and across decades, as we slowly learn how the pieces of the puzzle of our narrator’s life fit together. We see the young girls grow up alongside each other until they grow apart, before their paths cross again later in life. We witness one’s dreams becomes a reality (but recognise that reality is not all it seems), and learn that the other fails repeatedly, but finds happiness in unexpected places.

Zadie Smith is an author whose work I admire greatly, but Swing Time is perhaps not her masterpiece. There are a lot of wonderful aspects to this novel, most importantly Smith’s brilliant writing. Every sentence is perfect, not a word seems out of place. She is the master is subtle characterisations, so evocative you need only one line to understand one of her protagonists. It is rare to find a book in which a single, perfectly chosen word can describe a person so fully. Her skill makes all her books a joy to read, but some plot elements were less convincing. I missed more detail to the friendship between Tracey and the narrator. Following what was advertised in the blurb I expected their relationship to play an even greater role. That being said, while I would have like to read more about Tracey I consider Swing Time an honest and nuanced depiction of all kinds of relationships and our selfish tendencies that can burden them. The narrator’s namelessness highlights her lack of identity, or rather, how her identity is defined only in relation to others: she is someone’s daughter, another woman’s friend, she is a lover and an employee. No emotion can be too ugly for Smith, and every character, however flawed they may be, has their saving graces. Her lack of identity leaves sets the stage for the exploration of other themes. As ever, Zadie Smith’s social commentary is strong and witty, always sprinkled with humour. Dance plays a wonderful role and is decorated with some of the most elegant lines. The novel tells the story of learning to listen to yourself amidst all the noise and the voices that try and influence your path. Swing Time is many things, and perhaps it would have been more successful split into two novels in order to dive deeper into some of these themes. Indeed, my only criticism of this book might be that I wanted more of it.

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