Monday, March 27, 2017

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

This was a really interesting book about poverty, race, gender, sexual abuse and relationships.  The book is told from the perspective of a young woman looking back on her life after she is fired from her job (this is revealed in the prologue so is not a spoiler).  Now that I look back on the 450 page book, I'm not even sure we ever learned the narrator's name - this may have been the point as she never seemed to develop and independent personality, but rather lived in the shadows of others.

The narrator, whose mother is black and father is white, meets Tracey, whose mother is white and father is black, when they are children living in low income housing in London in the 1970s or 80s.  Both are registered for dance classes at a local church, but only Tracey shows any talent.  That doesn't really seem to bother the narrator as much as you would expect - and neither does the fact that Tracey is for the most part a mean spirited liar and not much of a friend.  Though we are given the chance to sympathize with Tracey somewhat when we see how difficult her childhood is - particularly her relationship with her drug dealing father who is in and out of prison.

The book travels back and forth in time - we know early on that Tracey and the narrator had a falling out when they were in their early 20s, and the back and forth chapters eventually show us what happened.  We also see the narrator's experience with high school (while Tracey is allowed to go to dance school, the narrator's activist and educated mother makes her pursue a more academic course); university (where she studies media and has her first relationship - with a man who also keeps her firmly in his shadow); her first job working for YTV and finally her job as an assistant to Aimee, an Australian pop sensation.  Aimee is a self-absorbed, rich woman who thinks she can change the world with her money and reputation.  She takes advantage of all those around her, including the narrator, in order to achieve her ends.  Her special project is building a school for girls in Gambia and she travels there several times with her entourage in tow.

While Aimee's intentions are good, she pays no attention to the problems she has created by working with a dictatorial government, bettering girls at the expense of boys, ignoring cultural conventions and becoming personally involved with a teacher much her junior.  The narrator and others are left to deal with the aftermath of Aimee's whirlwind visits.  There we see the narrator develop relationships with the local people as well as others on Aimee's team.  It is one of these relationships that ultimately leads to her firing.

In addition to the main story there were some interesting side stories.  I particularly liked the story of the narrator's mother and how she put herself through university, worked as an activist and eventually made her way into municipal and federal politics.  She was a strong role model - though she also put the narrator, as well as her partners, in the shadows so did not help the narrator in developing her own personality.  I also found the story of how the poor people in the Gambia became vulnerable to Muslim radicalization due to their poverty, lack of education and lack of options.

All in all this was an interesting book, but really because of all the interesting characters and less so because of the narrative.

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