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.

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Honour by Elif Shafak

honour“Never had it occurred to him that you could deceive the person you held dear. It was his first lesson in the complexity of love.”

A dark little anecdote with which Elif Shafak opens her book paves the way for a novel that fearlessly takes on Honour killing and everything that comes with it. Shafak recalls a childhood memory of a neighbour who often beat his wife. “In the evenings we listened to the shouts, the cries, the swearing.” The entire neighbourhood pretended not to hear.

This tale of a Kurdish-Turkish family spans three generations and is the first of Shafak’s books to be set in London.

The story opens with Esme setting out to get her brother after his 14 year sentence in Shrewsbury Prison. He has been locked up for murder and it is suggested that the victim was his own mother. We then journey back and forth through Istanbul in the 50s, to Hackney in the 70s and a small Kurdish village where twin girls, Pembe and Jamila, step on the paths to the rest of their lives.

It is Pembe and her husband Adem who journey to London and start to raise their three children and we watch with the slow inevitably as a character starts a chaste relationship that leads to tragedy. Shafak neither villanises nor sugar coats the characters and issues this raises and unflinchingly shows the result of what happens when misogyny is allowed to run unchecked.

This story is written with a touch of magical realism and contains stories within stories that have the touch of the fantastical; a mother waits on a riverbank for an old woman to name her child and Jamila lives hermit-like as the “Virgin Midwife.” This writing style with touches of humour made what could have been a grim story, something warm and human and while I did not fall in love I did enjoy the reading.