Friday, January 27, 2017

The Indomitable Zadie Smith: Swing Time

Since publishing her debut novel, White Teeth, at 24 years of age, Zadie Smith has been a stalwart of
literature in the English Language. Delving into issues of race and multiculturalism (with all its tensions), Smith has continued to write engrossing and political literature that has built up legions of fans eager to read her next book.

With little surprise, when word got out that a new Zadie Smith novel was set to hit the bookstands in late 2016 it garnered a lot of buzz. Swing Time was published to much fanfare and has received significant critical acclaim, having been shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction (losing to Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad), and making the finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award (set to be given out in early March).

In Swing Time, Smith breaks from her previous convention, narrating the story from a very intimate first person perspective, an unnamed protagonist who embraces her love of dancing at a young age only to be overshadowed by her more talented friend, Tracey, the only other girl of colour in her dance class. Jumping back and forth in time and space, Smith's narrator journey goes from abandoned dreams of dancing stardom to the inner circle of a pop diva, from the state-funded public housing in North London to the small villages of West Africa. Although both the narrator and her friend Tracey have a modicum of success at points in their life, the weight of unmet expectations and succumbing to mediocrity loom large, as both come to terms that the hopeful dreams of their youth have not been achieved.

The scope of time and themes Smith tackles is impressive. She manages to fill her pages with a nostalgic appreciation of 1980s pop and dance, while still rooting the reader in the present. Even with a protagonist that consciously rejects the radicalism of her mother, Smith still manages to pepper the plot with the politic of race and class that no one can run away from, even those desperate to escape and with the innate talents to attempt to do so.

Although Swing Time has much going for, it isn't quite at the bar set by Smith's Orange Prize winning and Booker shortlisted On Beauty. Zadie Smith is a pro and her writing is always good and provocative, but this book is a slow burn, not something the reader is going to get engrossed in and power through. That may be good, though, sometimes good writing needs to be consumed by grazing rather than devoured. However, in this case, I felt myself appreciating the reading experience rather than enjoying it, an important distinction and one that influences how highly I will recommend a book.

Nonetheless, it is worth picking up, although if you have not read Zadie Smith before I'd suggest starting with On Beauty before dipping into the world of Swing Time.


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