Pub. Date: 15/11/2016
Publisher: Penguin Books; Hamish Hamilton
Two brown girls dream of being dancers--but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, about what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It's a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.
Dazzlingly energetic and deeply human, Swing Time is a story about friendship and music and stubborn roots, about how we are shaped by these things and how we can survive them. Moving from northwest London to West Africa, it is an exuberant dance to the music of time.Swing Time is so much more than a story of two friends growing apart. In less than 500 pages Smith combines a whole variety of themes, narratives and voices which makes reading Swing Time an incredibly rich experience. Smith tells her story across time, the unnamed female narrator moving between her childhood, her teen years, her current life and the more recent past haphazardly. In any other writer's hand this may have been extremely confusing yet in Smith's hands this looseness with time elevates the story. Our narrator finds connection points, almost accidentally, all through her life between her past, present and future, which transform her life and the novel into a living, breathing creature. There are no clear cut 'and then's, no strict division of where one story starts and the other ends. Smith's characters live, continuously present but not always at the surface. As Smith brings different themes to the forefront, so some characters make a reappearance front centre stage in the narrator's life. With dance at the heart of Swing Time, it should come as no surprise that the novel moves fluidly and fascinatingly, a show perfectly timed and yet coming across beautifully spontaneous.
At the heart of this novel are two brown girls, half white and half black, and their struggle with their place in the world, their heritage, their history, their immediate surroundings and whatever life throws at them in fascinating. I myself am from two countries, yet Germany and the Netherlands share a lot of culture and history so there never was a sense in which I felt there were two separate parts of me. For the narrator, however, there is a sense in which she feels constantly "in between". Smith brings this conflict to the forefront in a number of great scenes in which the reader is led to question their own thoughts regarding race and heritage. The novel's story leads the narrator to West Africa where she has to confront a lot of her own thoughts. Smith doesn't force this issue down either the reader's or her narrator's throat, but rather lets both strive towards finding their own answers to the questions she presents. Aside from race, Smith also highlights the issues of class which affect a life just as much. Where you're born, into which city, neighbourhood, street, compound, what your parents do, what your grandparents did, if they're educated or working class, all of this has an effect on your own life and I have never seen this written about quite as well as Smith does in Swing Time. As the novel moves to West Africa religion also enters the novel and, without spoiling anything, it adds a whole other level to novel.
Smith's writing in Swing Time works perfectly for the novel's story. As said above, the non-chronological story-telling really uplifts the novel and I really enjoyed it. Smith is able to tell the story of a full woman's life, the different influences that play a role in our decisions, the memories and events that have an impact throughout our lives. With the cast she creates Smith really is able to tell multiple women's stories, without judgement, mostly, and with a lot of understanding. Another aspect of this book is the first person narration, which can be hit and miss. Too many authors rely on it to make their characters sympathetic, as if being stuck in their head automatically makes a reader like them. Some authors, however, manage to use first person narration to create a "real" character, showing all the good and all the bad, the conflicts and the victories. By the end of Swing Time I felt like I knew Smith's main character, in a way I haven't with a lot of other books.
I give this book...
I absolutely loved Swing Time. A dance really is the best metaphor for it, since you're watching the show from your own comfy seat but can't help become fascinated by the movements, the story and the drama. Smith brings a lot to this novel and asks a lot of very interesting questions. I'd recommend this novel to fans of Literary Fiction and Women's Writing.