8 Books We Couldn’t Put Down This Month

“One cannot read a book,” Vladimir Nabokov writes—and presumably once said aloud—in his collected Lectures on Literature, “one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” Zadie Smith quotes this Nabokovian truism in her essay on that author and Barthes, which appears in her own 2009 collection, Changing My Mind. This month’s Swing Time read was, for me, just that—a reread. The book opens on the narrator, a young woman, hiding out in a “temporary rental” in London’s St. John’s Wood. She has been fired from her job, for reasons yet unknown to the reader; paparazzi have been posted outside her building, she receives an email with the subject line “WHORE.” The novel then backpedals to the narrator’s early formative friendship with a girl called Tracey. As seven-year-olds in 1982, “for obvious reasons we noticed each other, the similarities and differences, as girls will. Our shade of brown was exactly the same.” One thread running through the novel remains concerned with the similarities and differences between Tracey and the narrator: they are both the children of one white parent and one Black parent, though Tracey’s father is Jamaican, while the narrator’s mother is. The narrator’s mother is intellectual and political; Tracey’s is not. Tracey is a gifted dancer and, while the narrator loves to dance, her talent is in her voice. As the girls grow up and apart the narrative is spliced with the narrator’s young adult life, and the job she more or less tumbled into assisting Aimee, a megawatt pop star, white and Australian, who decides to start a girls school in the West African country of Togo. The book sweeps through time and space as the double timelines barrel toward their respective preoccupying mysteries—why was the narrator fired; what definitively splintered Tracey and the narrator’s relationship—but takes a laser focus to temporally small moments that swell with meaning and effect: the molestation from which Tracey saves the narrator in grade school; the one that the narrator does not save Tracey from, or even acknowledge, when the pair are late teens; the narrator’s attempt to prove a point to a teacher in Togo that turns into a humiliation. Swing Time is, of Smith’s novels, the one that reminds me most of her essays, perhaps because of its preoccupation with time, its reveling in and dissection of the performances of real life dancers (Fred Astaire, Jeni Le Gon) and perhaps because of its first person narrator. In rereading the novel six years after I first picked it up, I experienced a similar accordioning of time to the structure of the novel; a confrontation with what I missed the first time round, new understandings that have come with living longer and reading more. I recommend this one today, and again in five years, in fifteen.

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