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“Swing Time” tackles female friendship, motherhood and celebrity, however it is author Zadie Smith’s keen eye for the human condition that will make it a classic.
Zadie Smith is on a pedestal for me. A new novel from her, like a new film from Martin Scorsese or a new album from The Hold Steady, is more than just a bite from the pop culure cherry; it is a personal thing.
And Swing Time had me almost wince by its conclusion.
There are moments when the piece comes to life, Smith’s astonishing knack for human insight coming to the fore in broad, beautifully rendered strokes. It’s this knack for human insight which sees me returning with relish every time something new of hers is published; from the first chapter of her debut novel White Teeth in 2000, a notion on marriages ending, as one character returns to his former home to reclaim a broken vacuum cleaner: “This is what divorce is: taking things you no longer want from people you no longer love.” Swing Time is sporadically littered with these insights, but the book’s main downside is the fact that the insights are attributed to characters for whom you have little to no attraction.
The theme of friendship plays a huge part in the work’s unfolding – between the narrator and her childhood best friend; that time, ambition and relativity end up being the things which divide them. Race, too is pivotal in this, as it is in a bulk of Smith’s other work. Here it is particularly focused on cultural appropriation, and the west’s general attitude towards people of colour, especially in Africa, and how good intentions can be met with righteous suspicion or scorn from the supposed beneficiaries.
Identities are lost, as is the narrative’s focus. From completing it, one sees an overarching theme, or themes emerge, and for that, we gain some insight. But as a satisfying read, it falls somewhat short.
This was the curious thing about Swing Time, and the thing which kept me at a distance from the book, unlike Smith’s previous works. This, like NW, has an unconventional narrative. “Unconventional” probably doesn’t adequately cover Swing Time’s structure; it darts between past and present, between the lives of children becoming adults, and adults (the nameless narrator specifically) experiencing life in the orbit of celebrity (in this case an Australianised facsimile of Madonna). The book comes across as disjointed and distancing as a result of this to-and-fro, and in large swathes set in an unnamed African country, we read of the narrator’s (and inasmuch Smith’s) insights as to the ill-preparedness of western aid programs on the continent. Which is nice, and, in all probability accurate, but lacking the kind of insight the prose suggests it possesses.
But the real kicker here, for this reviewer, at least (a fan, a major fan, and then some), is that the narrative’s jumping between locales and times has events in one being decidedly less engaging or interesting than in the alternate. As a result, identities are lost, as is the narrative’s focus. From completing it, one sees an overarching theme, or themes emerge, and for that, we gain some insight. But as a satisfying read, it falls somewhat short.
The characters in Swing Time, are – to a fault – deeply flawed, and often unlikeable as a result. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, and it makes a lick of sense that a recent interview the author gave was with Girls creator Lena Dunham; there is a writer whose work revolves around identifying the flaws in her (clearly) autobiographical HBO series. The two bonded over this, and other notions.
But the thing didn’t resonate with me, which is a problem. Once I figured out what she was doing, I was in, and coming from a devotee’s point of view, I was never not going to be in. But as it wandered through its timelines, revealed the damage in its central character and peripheral characters, I never was hooked as I have been before. If you’d excuse the pun, Swing Time is a swing and a miss for the person for whom I’m convinced is the best novelist currently working.
I am, however, very grateful for the fact that there was a swing with which to begin.
This piece was originally published on The Lesser Column.