Books on GIF #73 — 'Swing Time' by Zadie Smith


Welcome to the latest edition of Books on GIF, the fun and smart alternative to boring book reviews. This Sunday's book is 'Swing Time' by Zadie Smith.

Sorry I missed you guys last week. It took me forever to get through this book. And not to waste your time this week, I’m going to come right out and say it: I did not like 'Swing Time.' I had to force myself through every page while my inner voice cried:
I was surprised at how much of a slog this was to read. I loved her previous book 'White Teeth,' and I was so sure I would love 'Swing Time,' too, that I downloaded loving GIFs in advance, like this one:

But I could not connect to this book, and I struggle to even tell you what it was about. There are important themes about race, immigration, privilege and cultural appropriation, but the characters are hard to care about, the plot is confusing, and the story is overall uninteresting. It's narrated by a woman (I didn't catch her name) who opens the book hiding out to avoid the press amid a scandal that I had to wait more than 400 pages to learn more about. I was like:
The woman is the daughter of an ambitious Jamaican immigrant mother, who is always studying and eventually becomes a member of Parliament, and a white postal-worker father, who has no ambition and dies somewhere mid-book. The narrator has a friend named Tracey, and they are both interested in dance. Tracey has actual talent, and goes on to have a limited career in musical theater before single motherhood and madness destroy it. The narrator goes on to work as a personal assistant for a Madonna-Angelina Jolie amalgam pop star who starts a school in an unnamed West African nation. The narrator's job is to go to the school and coordinate stuff there; it's not very clear. She also learns vague lessons about life, romance and the legacy of colonialism while on these trips. After a decade into that job, she realizes she has been so consumed by it that she has no friends, no family, no love, no dancing, no children and then, mercifully, the book is over. I was like:
Throughout the story, the narrator delivers monologues about dance and music that involve Bojangles, Michael Jackson and Jeni Le Gon. They inspired me to research on YouTube dance sequences she mentions, like this one from 'The Little Colonel' with Bojangles on the stairs:
In this scene, Shirley Temple watches him do this amazing performance, and at the end demands to do it, too. Watching the video in the context of the book, my guess is that Smith was trying to make a point about the desire among white people to emulate and appropriate black excellence while at the same time treating black people as second-class citizens. That's an important point, and one that needs to be explored further in literature and society. But it wasn't clear to me what Smith's overall point is, beyond that this is bad. I would have enjoyed a deeper exploration, and I think it would have made for a more interesting story. In the end, to paraphrase Jason Robards' character in 'Julia,' it's not that 'Swing Time' is bad, but it's not good enough. I felt that if Smith had given it one more lap of editing and revision, she could have offered readers a sharp and necessary book.

My rating: 

'Swing Time' by Zadie Smith was published by Penguin Press in hardcover in 2016 and in paperback in 2017. 453 pages.

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Next Sunday, and the Sundays after that: Over the next two weeks I'm going to run a review of a poker book that's been backlogged for months and a YA 'Star Wars' novel to give myself some space to get ahead on reading. Coming soon after will be reviews of 'Little Reunions' by Eileen Chang, 'The Good Earth' by Pearl S. Buck and 'The Story of the Lost Child' by Elena Ferrante. Got a bestseller, a classic or a forgotten gem you want me to review? Shoot me an email.

If you missed last week's edition, here's my review of 'Pachinko' by Min Jin Lee. Here's an image of Min Jin Lee's reaction to my review:
Want to discuss further this or any other book? Hit me up on TwitterFacebookInstagram and Goodreads.

Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this review!

Until next time,