Sunday, April 16, 2017

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Three strong women are viewed through the prism of a fourth

The unnamed narrator recalls her childhood escapades with Tracey, her similarly biracial friend.  They meet in dance class where it is quickly discovered that the narrator has flat feet, but Tracey is truly talented, though dragged down by the ignorant working class values of her white mother, and scarred by the abandonment of her father.  In adulthood, Tracey’s fate is entwined with her enraged insanity.  The narrator’s Jamaican mother is a big fan of self-improvement, the course of which takes her to Parliament.  Meanwhile, the narrator gets a job as a personal assistant to a Madonna-like rock star.  The rock star establishes a school in a small West African country, and the narrator travels to the village to help establish the school.  In the course of that journey, she learns some lessons about who she really is. 

I was disappointed in this.  Zadie Smith’s previous novels had deep structural flaws which consistently resulted in unsatisfactory rushed endings, but in which the reader also was rewarded with deeply moving scenes and brilliant observations and dialogue.  In comparison, Swing Time had long stretches of dullness, as well as long stretches of mildly interesting reportage.  Part of the problem is the passive first person narrator.  Her conflict wasn’t clearly articulated or compelling.  She didn’t seem three dimensional, not in the way that the ambitious mother or even the unambitious father felt three dimensional.  The narrator is joined in that flat universe by the Aimee-Madonna character.  Aimee is not even really a charming egomaniac, she’s just grating.

There are numerous good scenes in here – the scenes in Africa and with the mother and the early childhood scenes are good.  It’s just that the story never comes to a dramatic peak.  The main plot twist doesn’t feel correctly established or supported by the desultorily doled out plot points.  The narrator keeps referring to some event that changed everything, but that gimmick feels hoary, and the actual event, once revealed, is stupid. This book might contain the world’s most half hearted love triangle.  Also, for no apparent good reason, Darryl Pinckney is thrown in.

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