[Originally appeared here: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/li…]
There is something about every life: ripe with memories, rife with punctures, crowded yet distinct, deceptively omniscient but a puzzle to its only custodian. Zadie Smith’s narrator in ‘Swing Time’ attempts to hold this fleeting, substantial thing in her hand and poke it for its secrets over a good 35-40 years.
This is a story primarily about a brown girl in London, whose life arcs diverse places, people and emotions, keeping, somehow, another brown girl, Tracey, at its epicentre. Narrated in first person, she opens her rendezvous with Tracey at the tender age of seven, when all that mattered to the duo was dance, at which, Tracey was much better.
This unequal ledge of talent, sets precedent to the rest of the story and throughout her life, our narrator registers experiences, always a tad less vibrant than she had hoped would come by.
Right from abandoning her ambitious mother and genial father and gravitating towards Tracey in her teens, to landing a job at a music channel by severing ties with the very same girl, from rapturously following a teenage pop sensation, serving her fashionable cause of educating children in a remote West African village, to returning, in her mature years, to her own mother and Tracey’s children, our narrator lives a life oscillating at the hems of reward and agony. And this undulation is captured with a sharp lens, at times and a shaky hand, at other.
A prominent thread that one might notice in this expansive narrative, is the non-linear time line. The narrator keeps swinging between today and yesterday, and day after tomorrow and day before yesterday. The casualty in such arrangements is usually empathy, which is suspended much before its formation due to the breckneck pace of its beholders. But Smith’s skill lies in her smart writing, which bridges the gaps to some extent. Her seamless fusion of cultural elements belies the sharp sting of race fallout: the friendships and relationships she depicts are not devoid of the disjoint perspectives that emerge from exercising different racial hegemonies. There is a certain tenderness in her narrator’s call, almost like an impervious actor defeated from inside. But the overdose of details robs a considerable sheen off the reading pleasure. Some portions, especially in the middle, are tediously drawn, where the elements appear doing nothing else but fill the pages. Perhaps, the superfluity did what the overlapping timelines did not – overshadow the narrator.
Despite all, ‘Swing Time’ is a good outing; one that brings some vital air, if not a piece of fresh memory to take back home.
[Note: Thanks to Netgalley and Penguin Books (UK) for providing me an ARC.]
[Image courtesy definitelyfilipino.com]