Swing Time by Zadie Smith: the Fantasia 2000 of books

Disney’s Fantasia 2000 is regarded with positive adjectives like brilliant, riveting, picturesque, enrapturing, etc. At the end of the day, we all know the movie can be quite boring. As an audience, we can appreciate the concept and understand that it’s cinematography is for those who appreciate the art aspect of films. Maybe it’s my inability to properly point out a potential literary merit, but Swing Time felt like Fantasia 2000 to me. I can appreciate what Zadie Smith was doing, and it was not a bad story at all cost. It was quite good, but there were times when I just was getting a little bored.

Swing Time is about an unnamed mixed-race girl who chronicles her childhood during the 80s with the highlight being time spent with her best friend, Tracy, who she reveres. As the story furthers, the unnamed narrator moves on with her life and spends time in Africa with a philanthropic pop-star working with impoverished kids. That’s basically it. The plot itself isn’t all that complex. Each chapter recalls an event that happens in the narrator’s life rather than the book following a sequential, cohesive story (think Woody Allen’s Radio Days). 

What makes this book somewhat redeemable for me is the first part of the book. There is an edge in the story that isn’t there is the second half. The feminist mother particularly piqued my interest. The narrator’s mother earned my sympathy and my anger at times. I identified with her thirst for knowledge and intellectual stimulation, yet I despised her for letting her aspirations affect her daughter by making her feel inadequate and oppressed. The father with a fragile ego also had me appreciating Smith’s observation of the social tensions between genders during the 80s and compare it to today. However, all this appreciation couldn’t lead me to enjoy the book.

I fell in love with the book Their Eyes Were Watching God, and it may be why I can’t completely dislike Swing Time. The main character is remarkably similar to Janie and other characters from the realism time-period where she struggles with race, gender, colonialism, etc. Maybe I should have read the higher acclaimed books, White Teeth or On Beauty, before attempting this one. The language was beautiful beyond horizons. However, I got impatient waiting for Smith to tie all these little stories she was telling together. I get that this book was suppose have a higher, poetic meaning in its simple story, but it really just got me craving something more down to earth. It was an ambitious story, and the hard work shows. However, it takes a certain person to enjoy this story. Those who enjoy Harper Lee and Zelda Neale Hurston may enjoy this book.

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