Thank you to Gerry for moderating Swing Time by Zadie Smith.
After Smith, aged 24, burst on to the literary scene with the wonderful White Teeth fans always await her latest novel with great anticipation, and so it was for many of us who gathered on Tuesday.
Opening chapters rewarded our hopes. The developing friendship between two working class, mixed race, brown girls growing up on a council estate in London did not disappoint. The unnamed narrator shared the giggling, the confidences, the jealousies, the falling out and competitive tensions of her friendship with feisty talented dancer Tracey as they negotiated the throes of adolescence. Tracey was a well-drawn character, if not a particularly likeable one.
The narrator then leaves the estate for a minor university and, on graduation, gets a job as a PA to millionaire pop star Aimee ( aka Madonna/Kylie??). When Aimee sweeps into the Gambia to “fix” its problems by building a girls school and adopting/buying a black baby all completely oblivious its culture mores, we found ourselves on a roller coaster ride with as the narrative swings from London, to New York, to Africa and round and round and back again. Many lost interest finding the text confusing and littered with too many characters whose circumstances were not always fully explored or resolved.
Smith’s ideas poured off the page addressing themes of race, class, belonging, friendship, daughter/parents relationships (secrets and lies), third world development politics, biological clocks, what defines happiness – are the poor community-rich natives constrained by boundaries they are unaware of, and therefore are not troubled by, happier than Aimee with untold riches and stressed out by too many choices. While there were pearls of insight, there was a lot of clutter in the way to find them.
A long term OBG member, with a strong visual arts background, commented that as a group we often concentrate on the plot of our books rather than the structure. We need to try to stand back looking at the work from afar. She referenced Monet’s and Matisse’s analysis that the blank spaces in a picture are just as important as the drawn parts to give satisfaction when viewing the whole picture. Using this as a metaphor she argued Smith’s writing had no quiet spaces in it where we could breathe and recover before rushing off again. Admiring glances around the table as she nailed our thoughts.
There was, however, plenty to like and learn particularly all the reference to dancing motivating us to open YouTube, sigh at Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, discover Jeni Le Gon and watch Michael Jackson, with his shoes hammered his shoes to the floor, perform the “anti-gravity lean” in Smooth Criminals.
During our conversation, many compared to Smith’s friendship characterisations unfavourably to those portrayed in My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. Quelle surprise that is our next book, so we can compare and contrast.
Please see the link below for an engaging conversation with Zadie Smith. You may (or may not) wish to fast forward the first 20 minutes when she reads from Swing Time.