Swing Time By Zadie Smith: Book Review.



Zadie Smith is one of my go-to authors. Of her five published novels I’ve read four of them (NW being the exception).

She captures a small class of striving and/or educated London black people (led by women) that must strongly appeal to sociologists and social workers alongside the creative ‘set’ that find favour in the modern day Labour party.  This particular novel straddles all of these groups with its focus on dancers and musicians as its central protagonists.

It’s a type.  she knows them well.  And, let’s face it, Smith’s work feels deeply autobiographical.

It’s a million miles from the Scottish, suburban, middle class, extremely white community that I live in; although my circle does have feet in Smith’s more creative circles.

I shouldn’t really connect with her work but, like many others from outside that ‘set’, I do, strongly.

And that’s because of the sheer quality of her writing.  Let’s face it, there’s a reason she has won more awards than Usain Bolt.

To define her writing would be to say she overlays great story writing with poetic largesse and great character studies.

They spellbind.


Swing Time, her latest, long listed for the Booker, somehow misses quite a few beats – despite its subject matter being music and dance.  Maybe I took too long to read it, but parts of it really did not connect with me at all.

Swing Time, the movie by George Stevens that inspired the book title.

It concerns the life of a young (pretty untalented) wannabe dancer who ends up as travelling PA to a global pop star phenomenon called Aimee (the choice of name is probably deliberate although Aimee is no Winehouse; more a cross between Adele and Madonna with some Angelique Jolie thrown in).

Ignored by her thrusting Labour politician mother, spurned by her childhood bestie (a low grade touring musical theatre dancer) and living a lie with her African lover our main (unnamed) protagonist recalls four decades of her life from lowly roots in London to the aforementioned glittering lifestyle that takes her to New York and Africa.

In parts its funny (not many) in parts poignant but, sadly, in most parts (particularly the African sections) it’s turgid, drawn out and uneventful.

I so wanted to like this exploration of humanity – it touches on many important emotions; most of all estrangement and lack of engagement with family and/or friends.  but it just couldn’t root in my brain.  I didn’t much care for the narrator.  I found the African sections boring and the whole a bit disjointed and the story?  Meh!  All a bit of a 21st century collection of tropes and news stories stitched together by a woman we don’t much care for.

Lacking in dramatic tension and not her best.  Start with White Teeth or On Beauty if you want great Smith.


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