Aim High, Swing Low


I really wanted to like this. And I did, I swear. For the first 80 pages or so, at least. I found the first-person narrative voice a little mechanical, maybe because Smith doesn’t normally write in first-person and wasn’t entirely comfortable with that perspective. But I was interested in the friendship playing out, Tracey, the main character’s mother, and the situation. It’s not often anymore that low-income families are at the centre of a lit fiction piece, so I found it a refreshing change.

But then part 2 and onward. And I have to agree with other reviewers: the jumping back and forth in time is disorienting. The novel starts reading more and more like an essay as the main character becomes increasingly difficult to understand. We have no idea what drives her. She has no interests or passions. It’s strange. I felt as if she was strategically keeping too many secrets from me, and I started to check out as the book progressed. Secondary characters that started out promising devolved into caricature by the end. I thought the mother was strong at the start, but felt as if she fell off track near the middle. Same with Tracey. And Aimee was more literary device than anything else.

Zadie Smith’s writing can be beautiful at times, but the clause-clause-clause of so many of her sentences chops up her flow. And it often feels as if her writing is first and foremost serving the theme as opposed to the story in this work. I will say, however, that she does offer a nuanced look at two opposite worlds, and doesn’t let her main character get away with judging cultural practices unchecked. There are no easy answers in Swing Time, even if there are way too many questions. And she does express some very interesting ideas about race, history, and economics. My favourite takeaway? Identity doesn’t have to be a consequence of history, but can be something we develop and ascertain throughout our lives.

Overall, I think it’s an intelligent book, but it lacks heart. It tries to tackle too many subjects, and makes each effort less memorable in the process. It drags on longer than it should, and never seems to climax. But if you like Smith’s essays, then the book is worth a read.

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