I want to write something about this but I’m short on time and inspiration. Publisher’s blurb:
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, 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.
Tracey makes it to the chorus line but struggles with adult life, while her friend leaves the old neighborhood behind, traveling the world as an assistant to a famous singer, Aimee, observing close up how the one percent live.
But when Aimee develops grand philanthropic ambitions, the story moves from London to West Africa, where diaspora tourists travel back in time to find their roots, young men risk their lives to escape into a different future, the women dance just like Tracey—the same twists, the same shakes—and the origins of a profound inequality are not a matter of distant history, but a present dance to the music of time.
As this summary suggests, Swing Time explores favorite Smith themes: the ways that race, class, place and family shape our identity, and the difficulty of escaping them. As always, Smith has smart things to say about all of this, for instance, when the unnamed narrator thinks,
to me, a dancer was a man from nowhere, without parents or siblings, without a nation or people, without obligations of any kind, and this was exactly the quality I loved.
Later, of course, she learns that such rootlessness isn’t possible, that dance has a history, a place in time. The writing about dance is lovely, and the girlhood friendship of Tracey and the narrator, with its admiration and jealousy and betrayal and devotion, springs off the page.
But the adult parts of the story, with the Madonna-esque Aimee and her African school, often dragged. I felt the observations here were far more cliché, and I wasn’t sure whether to blame Smith or her irritatingly passive narrator for this–this is the first time Smith has written a novel in first person. The novel felt over-stuffed with ideas, and sometimes the characters seemed like cardboard cut-outs designed to embody them rather than people.
There’s a scene where Tracey and the narrator are watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance, and they talk about how you can see he is carrying her through–pulling her up from a dip because her back is too weak, for instance. The narrator too often seemed like Ginger, drifting along in the shadow of more accomplished partners. Perhaps that was deliberate, but it made the center of the novel feel empty. She never seemed to learn or grow.
I was really interested in this review by the novelist Taiye Selasi, who describes it as the juicy story of the narrator’s rise and fall. I never saw her work as Aimee’s assistant as anything but a drag, a role that kept her from becoming her own person–in part because I thought that was how she felt about it. Selasi read the novel very differently, and thinks it’s Smith’s best. As for me, I’d still pick On Beauty as her best, and White Teeth, with its exuberant invention always about to spin out of the writer’s control, remains my favorite.
Though I enjoyed parts of Swing Time very much, I don’t think it will make my Booker shortlist.