Swing Time by Zadie Smith

71YzYD54WTLSwing Time. Zadie Smith. Copyright November 2016. Hamish Hamilton.

Two little girls dream about being dancers but only one has talent. The other is full of ideas on music, film and the people around her. Their friendship, often antagonistic, twists into something else entirely as they grow up and move in opposite directions. The unnamed narrator takes us from the housing estates in London to a village in West Africa and into the sphere of an international pop star.

White Teeth blew me away and the promise of a novel by the same author on dance really excited me so I went into this book ready to fall in love. This may have contributed to why I was so disappointed by Swing Time. Zadie Smith, again, has created memorable and distinct characters but I didn’t like any of them. I was also disappointed that dance itself didn’t actually feature much in the story, only the industry around it.

The narrative was like listening to someone’s life story and interesting career (to them) and holidays and childhood- nothing touched me. This seemed to mimic the protagonist’s lack of true passion to anything in her life, except for her childhood friend Tracy. I felt like I would have been more interested following any of the other characters stories who actually seemed to have some sort of purpose- her mother, Aimee or Tracy herself.

“A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.”

I’ve seen many people say that this is Zadie Smith’s best book yet. Swing Time has also made the Man Booker longlist for 2017. However, like with the stories of Alice Munro, I just didn’t connect with this book. I will, however, be reading another Zadie Smith because White Teeth is still one of the best books I have read and I highly recommend it if you are looking for a good place to start.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

americanah-300x0Americanah. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Copyright 2013. HarperCollins 2014

I’ve been making eyes at Half of a Yellow Sun for a while now but for some reason Americanah was the first book by Adichie I actually read. I definitely didn’t regret it. Americanah is a great sprawling book that challenges the complex issues of race and identity and yet also manages to tell a captivating story.

Ifemelu and Obinze grow up in military ruled Nigeria and their love seems to be an unbreakable thing. However as one heads to America and gets labelled “Black” for the first time and the other ends up as an illegal immigrant in the UK after being denied entry into the U.S, we watch them break apart and after 15 years move slowly back together again.

The book is written from the perspective of Ifemelu and Obinze and features a large cast of memorable characters. The narrative jumps back and forth between both characters first returning to a now democratic Nigeria, their days at university and their life in the West.

My favourite part of this book was definitely Ifemelu’s blog and her chatty articles on race, class, misogyny and colourism. I loved her writing style and the fictional blog is one I would follow myself.

“If you’re telling a non-black person about something racist that happened to you, make sure you are not bitter. Don’t complain. Be forgiving. If possible, make it funny. Most of all, do not be angry. Black people are not supposed to be angry about racism. Otherwise you get no sympathy. This applies only for white liberals, by the way. Don’t even bother telling a white conservative about anything racist that happened to you. Because the conservative will tell you that YOU are the real racist and your mouth will hang open in confusion.”

 

The love story between Ifemelu and Obinze isn’t just a backdrop for the themes or the plot but the driving heart of the book. I wasn’t unmoved at their first meeting or the way they fit together. They didn’t win me over completely as individuals. Their feelings of superiority over the other characters (something they occasionally realise themselves) and Obinze’s “gentle disdain” for the wife he cheats on were things I couldn’t ignore but as a love story they worked.

I highly recommend this book not only as an engaging piece of fiction but as a masterful look at immigration, the diaspora and the intricacies of race that we often find we cannot put into words ourselves. I found myself smiling over so many characters in this book who represented people I have met in real life.