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RECOMMENDATION: Swing Time by Zadie Smith

28 Apr 2019

 

***My recommendations are based on things I have read, seen or done as and when I read, see or do them, which means they are not necessarily the newest or latest things to read, see or do.***

 

Swing Time is the first of Zadie Smith's books I've read and before I'd even finished the first chapter I was in love with her writing. Her ability to weave together beautiful prose with relatable, real characters is what makes this book so easy to get lost in.

 

At its heart, it’s a story of female friendship. We follows two girls, the never-named narrator and best friend Tracey, who grow up together in London, bonding over their love of dance. As they get older, their paths lead in different directions - Tracey's towards performing in West End shows and the narrator's towards being the assistant to a world-famous pop star. Despite physically not being in each other’s lives for a lot of the story, they are there mentally, in each other’s heads, influencing each other’s decisions and actions. It is testament to the power of female friendships, how strong a bond can be, how it can intrinsically tie two women together for the rest of their lives. Smith depicts so perfectly the way a childhood friend can continue to shape the person you are decades later; how those faint wisps of memory can come flooding back into technicolour vividness at the most unexpected of moments; the natural push and pull of any female friendship that ever existed.

 

My favourite parts of the book are when we jump back in time to explore the girls’ friendship during their childhood. Whilst their dynamic is one of opposites - extrovert and introvert, loud and quiet, leader and follower - the two girls have a lot in common. However I think our narrator is both in awe of her friend Tracey as well as not liking her very much at the same time. Tracey bosses her around, takes all the best bits in the plays they put on in their bedrooms and creates elaborate lies about her distant dad to make herself feel better about the situation she’s actually in. It’s a complex relationship where both love and dislike can and do exist in the same space at the same time.

 

The other key theme explored is identity. Our protagonist wrestles with hers constantly. Not only is she a young girl becoming a young woman looking for her purpose in the world (and her tribe), her mother is a strong-willed woman with political aspirations, whereas her is father a much meeker, more complacent man, which adds to her constant wandering back and forth between multiple identities, never quite feeling like she fits in anywhere. But what she does find is an identity in dance, something which can both unite and divide people; it can make you feel like more of an outsider than ever before or like an immediately accepted member of a group in a matter of seconds. We see this happen several times throughout the book as the lead character attempts to find her place in the world. I think she finds the world of dance both comforting and frightening - it’s somewhere she has felt like a secure part of as well as a rejected outsider, sometimes both at the same time.

 

Ultimately, Swing Time is a story about belonging and wanting, so badly, to feel like you belong - that there's a place in the world (whether physical or otherwise) to call your own. And everyone can relate to that.

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