Swing Time

If you’ve read any reviews or talked to readers of this book, you’ve likely heard about the good and bad parts of this book. The bad news is, it’s true. The sections of this book dealing with Aimee, set in west Africa, are just not good. They’re well written, because Smith, if nothing else, is a sharp writer. But the story, the message, the intellectual force behind them is no match for the other half of this book. The half that tells the story of the narrator and her childhood friend Tracey.

To (attempt to) put a finer point it: the sections based in west Africa (Gambia, likely), come off unfeeling and demonstrative of Smith’s thoughts about foreign aid, international development and Western investment in developing countries. They seem keen on demonstrating the breadth of her knowledge and thoughts about these things. Rather than diving deeper into the lives of these characters.

The depth of feeling, description and exploration of the other half of the book (largely based in London and New York) is what helps it succeed. Smith’s love of dance and music (apparent in other works, but mostly through biographical details about her own upbringing), her descriptions of familial and close friend relationhips, London in the 1980s and 1990s, culture, and housing are much more vivid, felt, and betray a deeper intellectual command. These sections, in no uncertain terms, save this book.

I will always show up for Zadie Smith’s writing. Her future books, her non-fiction essays, her cultural commentary. I find her mind sharp, her use of language impressive, and her perspective important as a voice of the generation just before mine.