Book Review 5 – Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Do you want the good news or the bad news? What’s that you say? The bad news first? OK well here it is. This is going to be my last blog post on this website. I know what you’re thinking – she’s had enough. Five weeks of reading have done her in. She’s thrown in the towel. Would I do that to you? Never! Let’s give you the good news. Next week’s blog post will be coming to you from my very own website 52goodbooks.com The enthusiastic ones amongst you will find that if you click on this link before Monday 9th October you get nothing, nada, zip. The website is currently under construction whilst my web developer (oh yes, I have one!) makes it all nice for you – ain’t he sweet? The reason for this sudden move is down to a few teething problems with the blogspot account, but fear not you’ll still be getting the same weekly dose of my literary ravings at the new address.

Fess up – who nicked my copy of White Teeth?!

So, on to this week’s read. Is it a surprise that the brilliant Zadie Smith was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize? Absolutely not. I scanned my bookshelves and found her name came up a few times. Turns out Smith is a household favourite, we appear to have two copies of ‘Autograph Man’ – one for each hand… though I can’t lay either of my hands on my copy of ‘White Teeth’ at all… I know it’s around here somewhere. Grr!

Smith’s latest book, ‘Swing Time’ is the story of a young woman who is born and brought up on a London housing estate and ends up travelling the world with her overbearing celebrity employer. You get the sense that Smith knows people, she really understands what makes them tick and it is this more than anything that makes her books so compelling. Her character dissection is a thing of beauty. Sometimes she hits the nail so squarely on its naily head that it makes you want to weep:

“Maybe luxury is the easiest matrix to pass through. Maybe nothing is easier to get used to than money,”

she says, whilst describing a poverty stricken man’s enrapturement with the affluent world he is thrust into. I never want to forget this statement. That’s why I picked it out and wrote it down here as evidence (as if Smith’s books aren’t enough – who am I kidding!) of Zadie Smith’s sublime understanding of the human condition.

And yet, I can see why ‘Swing Time’ has not made it to the Booker’s shortlist. There were things about this book that I’m sorry to say, irked me. About a quarter of the way through (or perhaps less) I noticed something peculiar about the protagonist and her parents; none of them had names. I wasn’t going to mention this, because it seemed somehow spoiler-y, but honestly having this prior knowledge changes nothing for a reader. In fact it probably would have helped me had I known this, because once I had noticed this incognito narrator it totally threw my expectation of the kind of book this was going to be. I kept thinking that there must be a reason that she was nameless. I was primed for something crazy to happen, maybe her mother was going to turn out to actually be her, maybe she and her best friend were the same person, maybe something even more bonkers than I could possibly cook up in my limited imagination was going to happen. Of course, it didn’t. And then I felt underwhelmed. You get to the end and it’s like, she just had no name. Get over it.

I wonder if the name shortage was some kind of commentary on the lack of pizzazz, the absence of mojo, the complete want of chutzpah the protagonist portrays. I can’t say I particularly warmed to her. I understood her – Smith’s talent is such that you always understand the motives of her characters, but the permanent presence of characters that dominated her began to jar after a while. Her mother, her childhood best friend, her boss. I felt like grabbing her by the nameless shoulders and shaking her. Life just appeared to be a spectator sport to her. She sat there and watched to see what would come her way. Her apathy irritated the bejesus out of me. All in all, I’m glad I read the book, if only to get back in touch with Zadie Smith’s stunning excavation of the human mind, but I’m afraid this one won’t be going on my favourites list.

My portrait of Swing Time’s protagonist

So, week five and the ‘to be read’ list continues to swell. It seems the more I read, the more I go to websites and social media on book related topics and become aware of what other bloggers and reviewers are recommending, the more I notice posters when returning books at the library; and the longer the list of what I want to read becomes. Then in amongst all this; these posters and websites and well-established reviewers is my own little blog. It’s nice to be a part of this mechanism and, for what it’s worth, recommend some books myself. It has been really heartening to hear several people tell me that the blog has inspired them to get out a book and read for themselves. So let’s end with that thought in mind. I’ve done this weeks reading and am onto the next, but what about you guys? What have you been reading? Why not share a comment and let the rest of us know? As a mummy friend of mine often says, ‘Sharing is caring!’ So, care to share anyone?!
Don’t forget, see you next week on 52goodbooks.com for my review of another Smith (they get everywhere)! Autumn by Ali Smith has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and you’ll get the lowdown on my blog next Monday.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *