Review: Swing Time, Zadie Smith

Two biracial girls grow up in the same bit of northwest London, attending dance classes together. Tracey has real talent, and our unnamed narrator does not, and Swing Time is about the unexpected paths their lives take as they grow into adulthood.

Swing Time

Content warning, there is very little dance school in this book. The narrator pretty quickly stops taking dance, so if you were going into Swing Time singing a little song to yourself like “dance school dance school dance school dance school,” you might end up disappointed. That’s not what I was doing or anything. It’s just something I thought of. That a person might do. Who liked reading about dance schools.

Halfway through Swing Time, I told Alice and Whiskey Jenny that I was considering giving it up. Two-thirds of the way through Swing Time, I was back in, while accepting quietly to myself that as a general rule, Zadie Smith’s fiction — like Michael Chabon’s — simply is not for me.

I loved Swing Time best when it got out of northwest London, which makes me suspect that I am completely missing the point of Zadie Smith, famed chronicler of life in northwest London, and that you shouldn’t listen to my opinion about this book or any Zadie-Smith related topics.1 Once the narrator and Aimee begin traveling to Africa to set up an Oprah-like school for girls there, I was 1000% more engaged in the story. I had occasional issues with the way the narrator presents her own life vs. life in Gambia,2 in particular:

Food preparation was not for me, nor was washing, or fetching water or pulling up onions or even feeding the goats and chickens. I was, in the strictest sense of the term, good-for-nothing. Even babies were handed to me ironically, and people laughed when they saw me holding one. Yes, great care was taken at all times to protect me from reality. They’d met people like me before. They knew how little reality we can take.

Maybe this was intended to showcase the narrator’s naivety about developing countries? It doesn’t feel that way — in general she’s portrayed as being awkward and unsociable to the Gambian folks she encounters, but not un-self-aware — but maybe I am misreading. If I am not misreading, then I have sneers to give to this quite patronizing idea that one way of living — close to the land, near large groups of family, butchering one’s own meat, struggling to get by — is more “real” somehow than another way of living. All ways of living are real, and I’m sure y’all understand why the particular idea that closeness to the Land and the Family is more real/authentic than, for instance, city living makes me a little twitchy just at this present historical moment.

HOWEVER. Apart from that one bit, I really enjoyed everything where the narrator is in Africa watching Aimee try to Do Good, an enthusiasm that everyone in Aimee’s entourage knows will not last. While Smith isn’t necessarily saying something I don’t know about charity work in developing nations, she’s writing about something I rarely see depicted in fiction with the specificity it receives here, namely the disconnect between intention and reality in international charitable giving.

Okay okay okay, I know that my interests are not everyone’s. But that is a topic of interest to me, and one that rarely arises in fiction by Western writers.

By contrast, I could not possibly have cared less about the relationship between the narrator and Tracey that forms the backbone of this book. I have two hypotheses as to why that could be. It could be that Zadie Smith never sells me on the friendship. You don’t see a single thing about the narrator that Tracey likes, or a single thing about Tracey that the narrator likes. I had no idea why these two people spent time together and continued to be in each other’s lives.

My second hypothesis is that I am finished, or close to finished, with stories about wild girls and the unwild girls who have complicated relationships with them. I possibly have read enough of those books, and I possibly am finished with them. I’m not sure. I’ll do further research on this matter and let you know the outcome.

Meanwhile, what are some dance school books you can recommend me? I love books set in dance schools and there are never enough of them.

  1. Except that her essays are really good and she has the face of an angel. Those opinions remain solid.
  2. Ready for a lengthy footnote? Here’s what happened. Zadie Smith never says “Gambia” but I figured it out anyway. The narrator says what countries are nearby — Benin, Togo, Senegal — and what groups dominated the country, and I narrowed it down in my head to Ghana or Gambia. And then she said something about the President for Life, and that was enough information to tell me Gambia. It was incredibly justifying of all the reading about Africa I have done / want to continue doing. Also please read this Alexis Okeowo sum-up of what’s going on with the president in Gambia (someone else got elected, but the sitting president won’t leave).