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Swing Time – Zadie Smith Review

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.
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. 

Nothing so unfortunate as when an author you love suddenly starts writing mediocre novels. Zadie Smith has been one of the most acclaimed British writers since her debut White Teeth in 2000. And rightly so: few authors know how to observe racial relationships so sharply, have such a good ear for spoken language, full of nuances, personality and hidden meanings. Few authors create such interesting characters.

Parts of those qualities can also be found in Swing Time. Smith once again excels in the differences between black and white, but especially in the nuances between them: besides color, so much more counts. Tracey and the narrator are both brown, but their social class is very different, and that makes a big difference, it turns out. Just the fact that the narrator has a black mother and white father, while for Tracey that is the other way around, is unexpectedly revealing.

Just a pity that the story and the narrator are so horribly boring. That is actually surprising, because a lot is happening in the book- she dances, she gets a job at an MTV-like television channel, and then becomes a personal assistant to world star Aimee. In that capacity, she travels all over the world and even leads a charity project in Mali. But it doesn’t really matter, because you have no reason to care. The storyteller has too little personality and too few feelings. What does she really want? She lets herself be carried on the whims of her employer. Her grim intellectual mother and the talented but ultimately hopeless Tracey are actually much more interesting, but play no more than a supporting role.

What Smith does well is through Aimee is commenting on stars who throw money against a problem and (further) insufficiently think about it. But because Aimee himself remains a boring, one-dimensional character. The life behind the scenes of a superstar turns out to be much less interesting when you don’t know the superstar. Imagining that it is Britney Spears, Madonna or Angelina Jolie only helps for a short time.

The feeling that prevailed after I had finished Swing Time was therefore mainly: time to read White Teeth again.

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