There are two types of Zadie Smith books: The ones where she writes concise and clearly (White Teeth, On Beauty) and then there’s the sort of dense experimental novels (Autograph Man) Thankfully Swing Time is part of the former category. Also it’s her best and most socially conscious novel since White Teeth.
There’s a TON of themes within the book. Social class, racial relations, African reasoning vs western world mentality. politics , art , the music business, white people problems, love and that is just skimming the surface. At the core though it’s relationships. Namely the relationship between two mixed race girls; Tracey and the unnamed narrator of the novel, who both love dancing. The things is Tracey is good at it while the narrator is a mediocre dancer, which sets her off on a voyage of self discovery.
Swing Time swings (HA!) between the two phases of the narrator’s life. There are the early years when she speaks about her friendship/rivalry with Tracey and her later years when she works for a PR assistant to a Madonna/Kylie Minogue sort of popstar called Aimee. This is all in non chronological order, but it works and helps Smith expand on the multitude of themes in a non muddled fashion.
A lot of people on GR have praised the childhood narratives while the Aimee sections tend to be criticised. At first I thought that the themes explored in the Aimee section were a bit too simplistic, especially compared to the sections detailing the narrator’s childhood which are strong and fantastic reading but it was pointed out that it’s a question of subtlety and I can see that. In hindsight the Aimee parts are the most politically driven sections of Swing Time and I was able to appreciate that. There’s one part where Aimee decides to set up a school in Africa where Smith lets her satirical edge go wild but at the same time it’s not blatant. Coupled with the gorgeous style ( Zadie please ditch the arty farty style of the post White Teeth novels, it doesn’t suit you) this is a satisfying read.
So yes I did enjoy reading Swing Time. I might not have given it five stars due to the fact that it is a teensy bit overlong but for someone who has been disappointed with Zadie Smith’s novels in the past this was excellent in restoring my faith in this intelligent writer.
Having read all three of Zadie Smith’s novels, I can say that she definitely has a classic world conquering book in her and with each publication she is edging nearer and nearer to that landmark novel. Mind you with White Teeth she has created waves, The Autograph Man was liked by quite a few people (not me though) and On Beauty is her most focused work to date.
It is a bit futile to describe On Beauty’s plot. To be honest in this case it’s not the plot that counts but rather the themes Zadie Smith focuses on and trust me there are tons of them here. Multi racial families, Liberal vs Conservative viewpoints, fidelity, University politics and art. Really I’m skimming the surface. There is A LOT going on and Smith deftly puts it together and embodies all these layered themes in the two major families who feature in the novel, that is the Belsey’s and Kipps.
Unfortunately though, like her previous books, On Beauty has it’s fair share of kinks which decreases its appreciation value. Sometimes I feel that Smith tries way too hard to appear cool and hip, especially seen in the rapper Carl, which I felt was a stereotypical way of portraying hip hop fans. Also most of the time her characters burst into these self righteous speeches, which are a bit annoying, if Smith is trying to be as realistic as possible then these outbursts spoil the story’s themes from becoming believable.
Leaving those blips aside then On Beauty as a sort signpost for things to come. I’ve got a gut feeling that the next Zadie Smith novel will be one that will raise a few eyebrows.
I first read White Teeth on January 1st 2001, I had read that the book begins on New Years day (albeit 1975) so being the student that I was I felt that it was appropriate and symbolic to approach the novel on the same date.
I still think that White Teeth was a turning point for me literature-wise. before I was reading a lot of Amis, Self , Pynchon, Easton Ellis and Paul Auster – non of these really spoke about the foreigner adapting to his culture. As I have lived and moved around quite a bit (from Indian Reservations , to huge cities to Malta) in my live, I have always found it difficult to understand other cultures and through the narratives of Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, I related a lot to this.
White Teeth does have a rather complicated plot but in brief it is about the Interracial marriage of Archie Jones and Indian immigrant Samad Iqbal, who strives to bring up his family under the Muslim faith. add to this the Jewish-Catholic Chalfens and you have one heady mix of religion, education and everything else in-between . By the end of the book, the younger characters react against all that he or she has absorbed during their childhood.
Clearly this is a book the deals with relations, and very intricately but I also think it questions on how ‘English’ does one actually have to be? and are rejects of a certain culture mean you are part of that specific society? Smith tackles these things brilliantly and this is what drives one in reading the novel.
However it is not perfect. Back then I found some bits dragging and the ending a bit rushed but other than this it is a fine fine debut.