A week ago Donald Trump was elected President. A week ago I put out an urgent plea for book suggestions that would give my mind somewhere else to be. The same day as my request, Zadie Smith’s Swing Time arrived for me to review. I won’t claim to believe in book-fate*, but it sort of felt like book-fate.
It wasn’t book-fate. It was a great read, yes. Full of well drawn character and captivating scenes: these scenes are small moments that are just so exquisitely drawn – they do nothing immediate for plot, except to give you the confidence of the utter reality of the world represented. Set mostly in London, we follow two girls as they grow up with very different parents, but similar economic, gender and racial circumstances and personal ambitions. One of the questions, then, the book is interested in exploring is the extent to which we can choose our life or it is chosen by the context of our birth and our environment. Likewise, the extent to which individual gifts/predilections or hard work or luck contribute. And then it’s about cultural dimensions of time, celebrity culture, the capacity of art to achieve political ends (note: a recurring theme in 2016 novels… and perhaps no surprise? As the political moment turns increasingly bleak that we see novelists grappling with the extent to which art can change minds and lives, and the personal consequences for artists for speaking out – thinking here of Do Not Say We Having Nothing and The Noise of Time).
But not book-fate because it was as much about racial dynamics, celebrity and income inequality as it is about anything else. And, well, crucial as these themes are to being an empathetic person in the world, they are all too familiar in this particular political moment. Okay, okay, you argue this in fact better demonstrates this book as a fated read, but I say it wasn’t what I wanted to read (even if it was, and is, what we need to read).
One of the things I liked best about the novel is how completely uninterested it is in the romantic desires of our (I’m pretty sure unnamed) protagonist. She is motivated by her relationships with friends, principally female friendship. The plot, too, is propelled by these relationships and the conflicts that arises within them. I kept waiting – as I’ve been primed to do – for her life to be transformed or her motivations to change by meeting the right man. If nothing else this book seems content to say, yes, sex and relationships sometimes happen (they’re mentioned obliquely or inconsequentially), but they are not propulsive (or even all that interesting).
I’d expect to see Swing Time on annual lists of best books. Both because of the Zadie Smith factor, and because it’s an enjoyable read. I don’t personally think it’s in the best of the year (it lags quite a bit in the middle and the relationship with Aimee isn’t – for me – sufficiently transformative for our protagonist’s character development). But if (when?) you receive it as a holiday gift you can look forward to reading it. Or you can, you know, slip it under the bed and wait to find it when it’s book-fate time to do so.
*Book-fate are those books that just… find you. You’re wandering the library shelves and it’s the book next-to-the-book-you-were-looking-for. It’s the book abandoned on public transit that you scoop up. The book that you forgot someone bought for you until you’re (finally) cleaning under the bed. The book you read as a teenager and didn’t get, but you picked up again as an adult because [X reason]. In all cases this unsought book is exactly the book you need to read at exactly that time in your life. [Feel free to share your experiences of book-fate!]