Swing Time by Zadie Smith
Swing Time follows our unnamed narrator through her life, starting with her childhood friendship bonding over a love of dance up to the struggle of adulthood.
This story has many themes regarding race and culture that I understand are very common in this authors work. One of the biggest ones is racial identity, what and where your roots come from. Our protagonist struggles throughout the book with a need to find her roots and a racial identity, she is thrown off when put into situations on her travels to West Africa where she thinks she should find a sense of belonging and familiarity with the people there. Instead she finds herself very out of place and uncomfortable. She is very much viewed by the people she is visiting as a privileged white person, whereas in contrast, back at home in England she is viewed as a working class or even poor black person. There are many discussions of finding your past and what “blackness” means, and many parallels can be drawn with the works of Toni Morrison. There are also many representations of cultural appropriation and the many forms it can take, from the movies our protagonist watches as a child and then represented in her adult life by her employer Aimee. Aimee goes as far as using a West African symbol of the Sankofa bird which “looks back over itself to retrieve what’s been lost to the past” symbolizing the many people of African descent all over the world looking back to find their roots. She takes this symbol and uses it for her own purposes, as well as the music and dance that she encounters from her visits in West Africa. It also mentions many other cultures and peoples that she has also done this too.
There are also many forms of femininity present and is is almost a commentary or “study” on the different ways to be a woman, or to be feminine. This takes the form of the many woman in our narrators life from her own mother, to her childhood friend and her mother, her employer, other women she works with, and the women she meets on her travels. Their situations, outlooks and philosophies of living are vastly different and are most harshly judged by the women around them, they view each other as wrong instead of just accepting their differences. Our narrators femininity is even challenged by her boyfriend at one point with the idea that “woman was intended to be earth, she grounded man, who was himself pure idea”, which was a complaint that she want home to keep house and take care of him so that he could be free to think and be creative.
I really enjoyed the parts that were set in West Africa, the descriptions were beautiful and vibrant and I almost wished there was more. I really did not care for the love interests and the conflicts they provided, it felt unnecessary and almost a easy ploy to create conflict.
Ultimately I enjoyed my time with this story and found it very easy to read. I look forward to reading more from this author and getting more into the exploration of racial identity.
Manbooker thoughts, this felt very middle of the road for me. It didn’t do anything to really stand out for me and earn its place in the top. I predict is missing out on the short list.
Manbooker 2017 5/13