2017 Man Booker longlist: Swing Time
Book 4 for our shadow panel is Zadie Smith’s Swing Time. This time only three of us read the book which says something about either our collective level of interest or the length of the book. Our panel reviewed the book on the following criteria: 1) writing quality; 2) originality; 3) character development; 4) plot development; and 5) overall enjoyment. We’ve each provided mini-reviews and ratings. We hope you speak up and let us know what you thought about the book. Here are our ratings…
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
2017 Man Booker (longlist)
Published in: 2016
Judges: Jen, Book Worm, Lisa
Find it/buy it here: Swing Time
Synopsis (from Amazon): Two brown girls dream of being dancers—but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It’s a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.
Tracey makes it to the chorus line but struggles with adult life, while her friend leaves the old neighborhood behind, traveling the world as an assistant to a famous singer, Aimee, observing close up how the one percent live.
But when Aimee develops grand philanthropic ambitions, the story moves from London to West Africa, where diaspora tourists travel back in time to find their roots, young men risk their lives to escape into a different future, the women dance just like Tracey—the same twists, the same shakes—and the origins of a profound inequality are not a matter of distant history, but a present dance to the music of time.
Book Worm’s Review: I read and reviewed an ARC of this book last year. You can see my full review here. While I loved this book, and predicted it would make the longlist, that prediction was based on the fact that it was Zadie Smith who had written it. I am not sure this book by another author would have made the longlist.
Writing quality: 5/5
Character development: 4/4
Plot development 4/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Lisa’s Review: I keep waiting for Zadie Smith to come out with something that I will love as much as On Beauty. Unfortunately, I am still waiting. This book was engaging and readable, but I don’t think it was a great book. It did not make me see some part of the world in a different way, and it did not evoke strong emotions. I was impatient with the narrator who was so willing to subsume her entire life to working for a silly white rock star. I could see that the rock star’s un-nuanced involvement with a girl’s school Africa was going to cause problems from about a mile away. The plot meanders. Given that some of the other books on the long list seem to have at least moments of brilliance, I would be surprised if this made the short list.
Plot development 2/4
Jen’s Review: I should probably start my review with the caveat that I am not a fan of Zadie Smith’s writing in general. I hated White Teeth and didn’t particularly care for NW. I did like On Beauty but overall, my preferences and her style haven’t typically meshed well. I think Smith is brilliant and I’ve seen her speak and have enjoyed her talks. Yet, whenever I read her books I find them oddly detached and intellectual rather and this makes it difficult for me to feel connected with the works. So it should come as no surprise that I didn’t really like this book either. So far (after having read 8 books), this one is my least favorite.
Structurally the book is interesting with two separate threads that differed based on time point: one focused on the narrator’s childhood relationship with a neighborhood friend and the other focused on the narrator’s experience as an adult working with a Madonna-like popstar. I found the two threads vastly different in terms of my level of interest. I thought the popstar theme was rather silly and uninteresting. I wanted more about the narrator’s childhood and especially the parts involving her childhood friend (the most interesting character by far). The protagonist bored me. She was bland, whiny and annoying, and wholly uninteresting to me.
This is another one of the Man Booker books that I found overly ambitious in its attempt to pack in so much into one book. Some did this well (4321 for example) and then others like this book and Ministry of Utmost Happiness were less convincing. Smith tackles racism, cultural appropriation, friendship, racial/ethnic identity, politics, poverty, identity, stardom/celebrity, intersection between race and class, and more. It might have worked for me without the Aimee (popstar) parts which I really disliked.
To end on a positive, the writing is strong as can be expected by an author of Smith’s caliber. I do think many people will like the book but once again I seem to be an odd one out when it comes to her books. Make sure to check out BW’s full review of this book since she did love it.
Writing quality: 4/5
Character development: 2/4
Plot development 1/4
Overall enjoyment: 1/2
Average score across all panelists: 13.7/20
Have you read the book? What did you think? Should it make the shortlist? Why or why not?
Our Collective Ranking of Longlist books to date:
1. Lincoln in the Bardo
2. Days Without End
3. Underground Railroad
4. Swing Time
Next up: The History of Wolves