Man Booker Prize 2017 long-list reading guide: The magic of Zadie Smith's Swing Time

Editor's note: Up to 13 September, when the Man Booker Prize 2017 shortlist will be announced, Firstpost will be reviewing all 13 books on the longlist. This is your guide to the Booker contenders, and which ones you should read.

About six years ago, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels made a huge literary splash. People whose opinions matter rated it high. The books were supposed to document the lives of two girls growing up in a rough Naples neighbourhood, taking us from their birth through to adulthood and old age. But the writing left much to be desired. Flat, insipid and unidimensional, the books utterly failed to evoke any empathy. People whose opinions matter were duly informed that faith had been left shaken.

 Man Booker Prize 2017 long-list reading guide: The magic of Zadie Smiths Swing Time

Zadie Smith's Swing Time. Image via Penguin Randomhouse/credit Dominique Nabokov

Along comes Zadie Smith then, with Swing Time, and it’s the kind of book that Ferrante should have written. The two are similar in terms of plot and setting. Swing Time too is about two girls on the wrong side of town, who meet early in life and become thick friends after learning they are essentially two peas in an extremely racist pod. But while the Neapolitan novels were flat, this is sprightly; where they were tedious, Swing Time really gets the party started.

Set in the Britain of the '80s, we are introduced to two girls of mixed race parentage — one girl has an African father and British mother, while the other has a British father and African mother. And they both love dance. But while one was born with flair and blessed with a mother who indulges her talent, the other has ideas, a steady head on her shoulders, and is burdened with a mother who tightly monitors her every move.

And as it often happens, the mind triumphs the heart. While adulthood tortures and erodes skill, it nurtures intelligence and maturity. In books, as in life, those who have talent and little else find themselves grappling for solutions when the lights dim, while the truly intelligent chart new ways to get by once their limited luck runs out.

It takes an unbelievable amount of skill to pull through a 455-page novel, all of it in first-person narrative, with an unnamed narrator. And not once does it seem jarring or contrived, that the girl whose voice we have heard for so long has no name.

The two central characters, beautifully etched, are joined by an equally brilliant supporting cast, including the narrator’s super headstrong mother, and a homely, henpecked father (two more people who have also remained nameless throughout). It’s also testament to the writer’s skill that despite setting her book in dreary, '80s Thatcherian Britain, she has so much feeling ooze through every page. There is jazz, there is dancing and there is culture, there is so much music! From Bojangles to Michael Jackson to Cab Calloway to Fred Astaire, and even to Rakim — Britain of the '80s could have very easily been New Orleans of the '60s. One of the key reasons to look forward to the inevitable big screen adaptation of this book is for the soundtrack alone.

The book features chapters alternating between the narrator’s childhood and adulthood. The key problem with texts that offer varying narratives is that one section is almost always better than the other. It’s pretty much the only thing that goes wrong with Swing Time. Chapters that deal with the formative years are vivid and vibrant, while those dealing with adulthood pull things down. The effect this has is you speed read every alternate chapter, waiting for the slow drudgery to end just so you could get back to the interesting parts again.


We are also introduced to Aimee, an Australian pop singer, who comes out second best compared to the other, wonderfully etched characters. She seems more of a mish-mash, like a caricature of several real-life pop icons — impulsive and rash, benevolent and caring, an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, an impatient high-achiever who expects people close to her to criticise her vanity but also appreciate her innate superiority. Sure, there must exist actual people who do think this way, but an international music star who wants to use her money to build schools in Africa and adopt children from impoverished families seems a bit too real, as if this is the prototype of the quintessential pop icon.

Mercifully, these bits don’t run on for too long and readers are constantly returning to the warm comfort being offered by the other, alternating chapters. And are able to take in the slow deterioration and fall from grace of the once mercurially talented young girl who has no choice but to keep on dancing, long after the lights have dimmed and the music is gone.

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Updated Date: Aug 27, 2017 10:39:27 IST