Book Notes: Swing Time

Swing Time by Zadie Smith
Read Nov 7, 2020 - Nov 23, 2020

Swing Time is a softly touching novel. The story is not particularly exciting: just the careful retelling of a woman’s life, from girlhood to her thirties, beautifully observed. There are themes of friendship, motherhood, poverty, power, and, above all, race.

The unnamed main character, who narrates the book in the first person, is a bit oblivious, a bit too comfortable, a bit precarious, a bit naive. But she’s not unlikable. Through her eyes we see the story of a long friendship between two girls, and the surrounding landscape of their lives – their families, their jobs, their evolutions. The story itself reflects the main character, with all the pieces not quite adding to anything of substance, to paraphrase Smith.

Book Highlights

I saw all my years at once, but they were not piled up on each other, experience after experience, building into something of substance — the opposite.

She was studying Sociology & Politics. We didn’t know why.

Wasn’t it all a way of explaining power, in the end? The power that certainly exists in the world? Which few hold and most never get near?

But elegance attracted me. I liked the way it hid pain.

And if you followed its logic all the way to the end of the revolving belt, then after a few miles you arrived at a new idea, that wealth and morality are in essence the same thing, for the more money a person had, then the more goodness – or potential for goodness – a person possessed.

What could she know about the waves of time that simply come at a person, one after the other? What could she know about life as the temporary, always partial, survival of that process?

They’d met people like me before. They knew how little reality we can take.

It felt to me as if I were on a certain train, heading wherever it was people like me usually went in adolescence, except now suddenly something was different. I’d been informed that I would be getting off at an unexpected stop, further down the line.

Like Hawa, he didn’t get depressed, but he managed this not by looking away but by looking closely, attending to each logical step in any particular problem, so that the problem itself filled all available mental space.

I always wanted life – movement.

She said that a hundred years ago mankind was confronted with the question of space, but that the problem of the twentieth century was the simultaneous existence of different notions of time.

Together we entered this new space that now opened up between people, a connection with no precise beginning or end, that was always potentially open, and my mother was one of the first people I knew to understand this and exploit it fully.

All paths lead back there, my mother had always told me, but now that I was here, in this storied corner of the continent, I experienced it not as an exceptional place but as an example of a general rule. Power had preyed on weakness here: all kinds of power—local, racial, tribal, royal, national, global, economic—on all kinds of weakness, stopping at nothing, not even at the smallest girl child. But power does that everywhere. The world is saturated in blood.

Once you’re alive in this world, you’re responsible.

Nothing offends a man so much as being ignored.

It’s a shadow life and after a while it gets to you. Nannies, assistants, agents, secretaries, mothers —- women are used to it. Men have a lower tolerance.

I had always been quick to interpret everything personally, where Fern had seen the larger, structural problems.

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