My expectations were high. And perhaps nudged even a little higher thanks to The Embassy of Cambodia, which is still fresh in my mind.
Swing Time tells the story of two biracial girls growing up in the eighties in neighbouring housing estates in London. The pair meet at a dance class run in the local hall – the unnamed narrator is intelligent but self-doubting, while the other girl, Tracey, is confident, talented and self-destructive.
“There were many other girls present but for obvious reasons we noticed each other, the similarities and the differences, as girls will.”
The story follows the girls to adulthood, when the narrator becomes an assistant to an Australian pop star named Aimee and travels the world, assisting Aimee with her various projects, including establishing a school for girls in Gambia.
Where Embassy and it’s mere 70 pages, felt like a big novel on account of Smith’s stupendous analogies and the layers of meaning embedded in even the simplest of scenes, Swing Time is the opposite – it’s a solid novel (460+ pages) and yet, the bigger themes felt diluted, lost in the shifting time-zones and distorted by the narrator, whose opinion and reaction to particular events lacked the gutsiness I expect from Smith’s heroines.
The central theme is change, with a number of the main characters transforming themselves (perhaps the most compelling was the narrator’s mother, who began as an activist without a degree but finishes as a highly educated member of the British government). Coupled with Smith’s numerous references to dance (from Astaire and Jeni LeGon to Michael Jackson) and the Golden Age of Hollywood, there was the opportunity for a story of cinematic proportions. And yet, it didn’t quite hit the high note I had hoped for.
“We thought we were products of a particular moment, because as well as our old musicals we liked things like Ghostbusters and Dallas and lollipop flutes.”
Swing Time lacked the pithiness of Smith’s previous work. The chapters focused on the narrator’s childhood were by far the best and Smith’s attention to detail captures the truthfulness of eight-year-old girls perfectly –
“…and in the dialogue Tracey gave me to say I sometimes heard odd, discomfiting echoes of her own home life, or else of the many soaps she watched, I couldn’t be sure.
‘Your turn. Say: You slag – she ain’t even my kid! Is it my fault she pisses ‘erself?’ Go on, your turn!'”
In contrast, the sections set in Gambia were out-of-step, with Smith ramming in references to demonstrate that wealth and success are all relative, as well as commentary on globalisation, identity and cultural appropriation.
3.5/5 On reflection, much to admire but not the immersive experience I had hoped for.
I received my copy of Swing Time from the publisher, Penguin Books UK, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
Oh my goodness, I’d blocked out Findus Crispy Pancakes until I read this –
“…quite often the whole, misguided experiment (to make vegetarian lasagne, to do ‘something’ with okra) became so torturous for everybody that she would manufacture a row and storm off, shouting. We would end up eating Findus Crispy Pancakes again. Round Tracey’s, things were simpler: you began with the clear intention of making Findus Crispy Pancakes or pizza (from frozen) or sausages and chips, and it was all delicious and no one shouted about it.”