Book Reviews

Swing Time by Zadie Smith


“…nostalgia is a luxury….”

The Good

In the future, kids in school will be reading Zadie Smith like we read Jane Austen. She is amazing in the way she perfectly captures the rhythm and tempo–the Swing, of her chosen subject– the immigrants of the poor areas of London. This time it is two brown girls, both mixed-race (“half-caste” in the language of Colonialism that still peppers the everyday speech of the Estates [British for Projects]). Both are in love with dance–the dancing of old musicals, especially. A local dance class is the catalyst for their early friendship to take root and grow. Along the way, it becomes apparent, that only the “other girl”–Tracey truly has a gift for dancing.

But the narrator has a mother who sees the world differently–she is not defeated by poverty. She struggles to “make something of herself” and does–becoming a member of Parliament. It is her take on life that resonates so strongly with me. I, too, live in a very poor environment, albeit a rural one. But so many things about her mothering have gone thru my own brain repeatedly. How many times have I thought, or even said aloud, something like this to my own daughter about someone she’s gone to school with about the limited horizons of those around us in our depressed rural county:

“…she’s been raised a certain way and the present is all she has. You’ve been raised in another way–don’t forget that….you know where you came from and where you are going…..”

But what really got me in this story was the merciless, and so deserved, send-up of oh-so-earnest (and so quickly bored) (and so politically naive) celebrities out do-gooding in the third world. And the way she stunningly shows the necessary, unsung, local heroes who often risk their very lives to make these dreams “work.” I snorted with laughter as the  “President for Life” was mentioned. I adored the work-arounds created by Fern to keep the girls in their marvelous  Loomy Academy. (Interestingly, the real Life President of the real East African country, Malawi, started his own namesake academy–which  People magazine once profiled as the Eton of Africa, but from which girls were dropped for becoming pregnant even when there was no consent given to the conception.)

Fern’s brilliant accommodations of local culture keep the school going. He deals with the insane things the First World Celebrity wants to impose–like a culturally insensitive and locally unacceptable Sexual Health Clinic at the school. He also had to deal with the inevitable local jealousies and the withdrawal of what few services the government offered. The Superstar could pay for them instead. Fallout that a “noted activist” would never want to know about–or cope with.

I lived in Malawi–the country Madonna claims to love. And, like in Madonna’s life, Aimee, the glittering rock star in Swing Time, “adopts” a baby–a baby who isn’t even an orphan –just sold by her parents, with the paperwork backdated. (Note–I also adopted internationally. I had to go thru over a year of rigorous background checks and real court proceedings. It is very difficult to do it legally but it does get done if you are patient). Money Talks.

I loved Lamin’s story–for I was Aimee at one point. Lamin who couldn’t be blamed for being a total opportunist and grabbing the brass ring of a long and successful life when it was within reach. Lamin who would earn more in a year at just about any job in either New York or London than he’d earn in four or five years at home. He’d be like the others and send home spare change that would keep his flocks of nieces and nephews in school and fed, would get his grandmother to a real hospital with real expatriate doctors and real medications. I understood all of this too well.

The whole outrageousness of working for a superstar (and though they were mere lawyers, not rock stars, I’ve lived a lot of this life!) was perfectly told. From the roles of the various assistants to the hatchet woman Judy, to the Nanny living apart from her own children, to the fake photographic exhibit it all rings too, too true. I loved this part of the story.

“…when you are poor, every stage has to be thought through….with wealth you get to be thoughtless….”

This part of the story should be read by every potential Peace Corps Volunteer (I was one), every potential missionary, every noted activist and anyone else with aspirations of doing good for the poor anywhere.  Local reality must be considered. Villagers are not First World liberals. Sustainability is nearly impossible.


The Bad

While Ms Smith is an incredible author who brings her reader into the world, this book lost me in places. I still don’t know if the narrator had a name. I’m totally lost on the “where were their parents?” scene at the end of the book. I felt the book didn’t so much as conclude as unravel–maybe that was the point since both girls’ lives unraveled? For all the incredible story telling, the end left me saying “So were they….?” “Was he….?” “What about….?”


One other note

I was also disappointed that, though it was a only one sentence, we had to know that the gay couple who helped our narrator, of course, had an elderly neighbors who disapproved of them and left religious pamphlets for them. Yeah. Cliche of the day. And a tired one at that. Because gentrified parts of Harlem are chock full of fundamentalist Christians, said no one ever. An elderly neighbor disapproves of a radical social change–maybe even is scared by it or by what is happening in her neighborhood? Gee, imagine. Let’s condemn her. It was a discordant (and unnecessarily petty) note in n an otherwise interesting book. [Yes, people, you may flame me.]


Final Verdict


In spite of its flaws, I’d recommend this book to anyone, but especially to those interested in good works among the poor or in a third world country. Zadie Smith knows the culture and tells it the way it really is. She makes the culture and mores of poverty clear. I love that about her work. I love that she truly has an ear for the voices of poverty as well as for a evoking the boredom, the tension, the stench of many of the places where the poor must live. She truly understands the hopelessness rife in such communities as well as  the ostracization of anyone who thinks hope can be kept alive or a better life can be earned. She knows, too, that the poor can love their children deeply–even when not coping with life. This is is gift to all of us. But, due to the mess at the end I’m giving it 3.5 stars. NW was far better. White Teeth was better, but this is still a worthwhile and readable book.


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