Book Club: Swing Time by Zadie Smith
In May, our Nashville book club read Swing Time by Zadie Smith.
I was lucky enough to hear Zadie Smith speak with Ann Patchett in Nashville several months ago.
And she was humble and thoughtful and well spoken. I was excited to read Swing Time.
I had some trouble getting into it though. I wasn’t sure why. I think it was because the unnamed narrator is passive, letting life wash over her. And when I first finished, I couldn’t tell what I thought of it. Did I like it? Did I not like it?
And after an intimate book club discussion, I realized Swing Time was difficult because it was probably designed to be. The narrator, a woman of mixed race (a white father & a black mother from Jamaica), feels pulled to befriend another mixed woman named Tracey (a white mother & an often absent black father). They grow up together, first becoming friends in dance class and bonding over their love for dance. They later grow apart, but Tracey’s still a huge part of the narrator’s psyche. In fact, it seems that it’s Tracey who the narrator loves the most.
The book shows a complex mother-daughter relationship, where motherhood is sometimes inhibitive of a woman’s ambitions. In this case, the narrator’s mother became political, first attending rallies and later running for office and winning.
The narrator works for a giant pop star, a white woman, who decides to start a school for girls in Africa. The narrator visits the African village. She feels out of place here, and she feels out of place in her life in general. She spends her time flying across the world and tending to her boss’s needs. Even though she has natural talent as a singer, she doesn’t pursue this talent in the book.
I realized that I had a difficult time reading because the narrator had a difficult time in life. Even though she was raised in a comfortable (though maybe a little small) London apartment, she didn’t feel at home. She felt out of place.
The book covers a lot of ground, from wealth inequality, mother-daughter relationships, friendships that last decades & the complications they bring,
Some favorite quotes in Swing Time:
“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.”
“And I became fixated, too, upon Katharine Hepburn’s famous Fred and Ginger theory: He gives her class, she gives him sex. Was this a general rule? Did all friendships—all relations—involve this discreet and mysterious exchange of qualities, this exchange of power?”
“What do we want from our mothers when we are children? Complete submission. Oh, it’s very nice and rational and respectable to say that a woman has every right to her life, to her ambitions, to her needs, and so on—it’s what I’ve always demanded myself—but as a child, no, the truth is it’s a war of attrition, rationality doesn’t come into it, not one bit, all you want from your mother is that she once and for all admit that she is your mother and only your mother, and that her battle with the rest of life is over. She has to lay down arms and come to you. And if she doesn’t do it, then it’s really a war, and it was a war between my mother and me. Only as an adult did I come to truly admire her—especially in the last, painful years of her life—for all that she had done to claw some space in this world for herself.”
“A feminist who had always been supported by men—first my father and now the Noted Activist—and who, though she continually harangued me about the “nobility of labor,” had never, as far as I knew, actually been gainfully employed.”
“Earlier in the week, watching a costume fitting—in which Aimee, Jay and Kara were being dressed up to resemble Asante nobles—I’d hesitantly brought up the matter of appropriation. Judy groaned, Aimee looked at me and then down at her own ghost-pale pixie frame wrapped in so much vibrantly colored cloth, and told me that she was an artist, and artists have to be allowed to love things, to touch them and to use them, because art is not appropriation, that was not the aim of art—the aim of art was love. And when I asked her whether it was possible to both love something and leave it alone, she regarded me strangely, pulled her children into her body and asked: Have you ever been in love?” … if you’ve read this book, or even if you haven’t, I’d love to talk more about this one.
Wanna talk more about Swing Time? Me too. Talk books to me, people!