When I finished this book my first thought was, "Damn she's good." My second and third thoughts involved frustration and disappointment. I am frustrated because I don't necessarily have time to read all Zadie Smith's other books right now, and disappointed that I waited so long to read her at all.
I think what had kept me away was that I didn't think her voice would appeal to me and that her books might be the type we all pretend to love but we don't really get them. (I'm looking at you Infinite Jest) The plots of all her books are rooted in London and involve immigrant tales. I'm as American as a gal can get and the immigrant experience always strikes me as so different in Great Britain. This fear that I wouldn't be able to connect to the story kept me away. I'm glad I eventually took the risk. If her other books are half as good as this one she will have a fan for life.
I adored the warmth and affection she has for her characters. Even when someone is acting out, even when they're being awful you can feel the love she has for her creations. Often in books antagonistic and contrary characters are presented in a way that as a reader I don't feel like I am given the choice but to hate them. The author points at the monster they've created and and we all boo and hiss. While Zadie Smith creates a character and makes them feel like family. Members of your family may be terrible and do things you hate but you see the entire person, all the good and bad, and all your history with them. And you can't afford to hate your family because you're in it together. And that is how I felt about the characters in Swing Time. I didn't always like the things they did but we were going to be together for 453 pages. We were going to fall in and out of love and disagree and I wasn't going to like them, but we were in it together.
I can't remember reading a book recently that didn't have a single poorly drawn character or an implausible plot point or anything I would call a flaw. I find it easy to read a book and think of all the ways it could've been written better, but not Swing Time.
My sole complaint is that there was so much tension and foreshadowing of secrets and betrayals. And when the secrets came out and the betrayals happened I was a bit underwhelmed. In this way, and this way only, if I'd known nothing about the author would I have known Swing Time was written by a woman. In my own life as a woman I have seen something small feel devastating. A paper cut is minor but it can hurt a thousand times worse when it's in a tender place. And the women in the novel hurt each other in each woman's most tender place.
Zadie Smith and I are of the same generation and her cultural shout outs and touchstones were appreciated and admired. And as a woman of color the way she writes about ethnicity and constantly placing yourself and asserting your identity was both powerful and calming. Race politics can be frightening. We spend so much time trying not to step on a landmine. While the main character and her frenemy Tracey take it slowly and in bite-sized pieces. As if to say you don't have to be all the different parts of yourself all at once and it's okay to decide who you are and what your color means in that moment, and possibly be someone else a few moments later.
This book has an amazing sense of location. The events of the book happen primarily in three places, London, New York, and a small African village. And I love a writer who is obviously not just creative but a great technician with language. I knew she was clever but I never saw her being clever. I never felt like she was trying. Much of the book talks about dance and how hard a dancer works to make it look effortless. I have no doubt Zadie Smith works hard but I didn't see it. It was smooth. It was ballet. I am applauding.