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Swing Time by Zadie Smith
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Swing Time (2016)

by Zadie Smith

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1,529727,791 (3.64)123
"An ambitious, exuberant new novel moving from North West London to West Africa, from the multi-award-winning author of White Teeth and On Beauty Two brown girls dream of being dancers--but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It's a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either. Tracey makes it to the chorus line but struggles with adult life, while her friend leaves the old neighborhood behind, traveling the world as an assistant to a famous singer, Aimee, observing close up how the one percent live. But when Aimee develops grand philanthropic ambitions, the story moves from London to West Africa, where diaspora tourists travel back in time to find their roots, young men risk their lives to escape into a different future, the women dance just like Tracey--the same twists, the same shakes--and the origins of a profound inequality are not a matter of distant history, but a present dance to the music of time"--… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 68 (next | show all)
I loved On Beauty. This ain't it. The story is disjointed, and I ended up losing interest in the outcomes of any of the characters, most of whom I was indifferent to -- including the narrator, whose choices (or the refusal to make them) was frustrating as hell. ( )
  Sonya_W | Feb 5, 2020 |
I enjoyed every minute reading this book, though a week later when I sat down to write this review I couldn't for the life of me remember what the book was about.

I enjoyed all of the backstory or the main character and found the ending satisfying, however the parts with Aimee I found two-dimensional. Overall I thought it was superbly well-written but apparently not memorable. ( )
  munchie13 | Aug 18, 2019 |
Ambitious novel, yet I wasn't drawn in to characters as I had been in White Teeth. Interesting development of female friendship and racial identity with young girls in England. ( )
  midwestms | Jul 20, 2019 |
Zadie Smith can be brilliant and frustrating in equal parts. This book certainly doesn't lack ambition, it is always readable and entertaining and parts of it are excellent, but once again I was left feeling this is not the great work that such a talented writer should be capable of, and for me none of her subsequent novels have matched her debut White Teeth.

To start with the positives - I really enjoyed the first part in which the unnamed narrator describes her childhood friendship with Tracey. They meet in a dance class and share a love of old musicals, Tracey is the more talented dancer but without the narrator she lacks direction and struggles to escape her broken family and her largely absent criminal father. The narrator has a caring but ineffectual white father and an ambitious self-taught mother who becomes a politician. Tracey achieves some success as a dancer but fails to make a long term career of it in the face of impossible odds.

For me the problems concern the character Aimee, a megastar singer and dancer who is Australian but shares many of the attributes, the career trajectory, lifestyle and aspirations of Madonna. The narrator works for her and is exploited to the point of having no life of her own, and is involved in a vanity project to build a school in West Africa (in a country which is not named but can only be Gambia). For me it is impossible to create such a character and make her completely separate from the real figures who embody the characteristics she does.

Smith has a lot to say about exploitation, black history and the realities of working in Africa, and these ideas are almost sufficient to compensate for the weaknesses. There are some fascinating asides about the careers of some of the black dancers (Jeni LeGon, Bojangles and others) who played bit parts in classic song and dance movies, and how they were exploited.

For all its faults this is an accomplished work, more fully realised that some of Smith's previous novels, and I can see why it made the Booker longlist, but there are too many stronger books on the list for me to see it as likely shortlist material, let alone as a potential winner. ( )
  bodachliath | Jun 18, 2019 |
Possibly my favourite Zadie Smith novel. So much goodness sprayed across a canvas that stretches from Kilburn to Manhattan via Africa. This is a novelist at the height of her powers from tiny and intimate portraits of a church hall dance class to a Madonna-type global superstar and her entourage.

Specific and sprawling and Franzenesque in all the best ways. ( )
  asxz | Mar 13, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 68 (next | show all)
For its plot alone, Swing Time makes for truly marvellous reading. The narrator’s journey, from gritty estate to glittering globe and back again, is the juicy stuff of which film adaptations are made. And the music! If one were to make a playlist of the references, one would have a greatest hits of black music: from Gambian drummers to Cab Calloway to Michael Jackson to Rakim. What makes Swing Time so extraordinary are the layers on which it operates; beneath its virtuosic plotting lies the keenest social commentary.
 
Some of the narrator’s experiences in Africa with Aimee — combined with her efforts to understand shifting attitudes toward race in music and dance — are meant to raise larger questions about cultural appropriation, and the relationship between the privileged West and the developing world. But these issues do not spring organically from this clumsy novel — a novel that showcases its author’s formidable talents in only half its pages, while bogging down the rest of the time in formulaic and predictable storytelling.
 
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Epigraph
When the music changes, so does the dance. -- Hausa proverb
Dedication
For my mother, Yvonne
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It was the first day of my humiliation.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Two brown girls dream of being dancers—but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, about what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It's a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.
Dazzlingly energetic and deeply human, Swing Time is a story about friendship and music and stubborn roots, about how we are shaped by these things and how we can survive them. Moving from northwest London to West Africa, it is an exuberant dance to the music of time.
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