Book Review: Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Okay. So it’s been a while, I know. In fact, you’ve probably just about given up on us. Brushed us off as one of those flash and burn blogs that soon fade into oblivion. There’s no excuse really, except that Jody and I both fell under that dratted weather bow again. Then we were dealing with the usual end-of-year chaos which has meant that we haven’t had time to have our brainstorm book-discussions, and honestly, neither of us have even had much time to read!

But then the summer holidays came (well over here in Oz – yep, we live in the land of the Wizard!) and thank goodness for that! A few blessed days away surrounded by family, sitting by the beach, reading, eating, relaxing, all those things. Reading, most importantly, of course.

I had been saving Zadie Smith’s Swing Time just for a couple of those lazy days. There’s been quite a bit of hype surrounding it, as with any of her novels, and this one struck a particular chord with me, being an ex-dancer and all.

It’s a story of the great trials of female friendship, so there are  parallels with the Elena Ferrante’s novels I so loved last year (can you believe it is last year already?!). The unnamed protagonist and her ever-so-talented friend Tracey live a childhood imbued with dance and music, just as Zadie’s writing continues to be throughout the book. If you took note of the songs, musicals and artists she mentions, I think you’d have a pretty fabulous playlist.

Zadie writes with a frankness other authors struggle to match. Her narrator moves through life from London to West Africa, seemingly on a search for meaning, but really just floating along in fortuitous relative comfort. Meanwhile, her school friend Tracey manages to scrape through as a chorus-girl before failed relationships and the birth of her children leave her struggling to make ends meet. Which was the greater success? The girl who didn’t really try and succeeded only to prove to others she could, or the one who worked every day of her life towards a goal, only to give it up?

This is a story fractured by inequality, book-ended by the too-rich and the too-poor and the push and pull of money given and money taken away. It’s a beautiful, nuanced novel with layers that still come to mind in unexpected moments weeks later.

Amanda x

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On Small Acts of Disappearance by Fiona Wright

I first found this book on Kate Forsyth’s blog on a list of books that she was reading. Wait. Have Jody and I mentioned our teensy obsession with Kate Forsyth? It’s true. But I’m sure we can discuss our mutual love of all things KF later. Now is not the time.

Small Acts of Disappearance was there, listed among other fascinating reads and I knew straight away I had to read it. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get through it because the subject matter is quite heavy, but I wanted to. For many months since it has sat on my TBR shelf, a thin volume lost between other heftier reads (I haven’t missed the irony in that, don’t worry).

Then it was shortlisted for the Stella Prize and I thought, do it now. Just read it. But when I picked it up the raw emotion of the writing got to me:

We feel so uncertain, so anxious about our rightful space within the world, that we try to take up as little of it as possible. It is a drive to disappear that can only ever succeed in making us more prominent, more visible because it makes us as different and offensive on the outside as we often feel we are at heart.

And I put it down, unfinished. The seed was planted though, and I went back to it with trepidation weeks later, certain this time I needed to finish it. And I did. But not without finding myself getting teary on public transport at the beauty of the writing, at the honesty of it all.

Small Acts of Disappearance by Fiona Wright is a series of essays detailing her battle with an eating disorder. Wright’s intelligent prose and her fascination with her own disorder ensure the essays are well-researched and entirely engaging. It is so easy for these books to fall into the “how-to” manual (as she mentions herself), but this is very different. It’s the depth of her self-awareness that grips you:

Eating disorder patients are, almost without exception, hypersensitive to the opinions of others, punishingly judgemental of themselves, and easily wounded because of the fragility of their sense of self. So gentleness itself, arguably, is therapeutic, because it’s something that we never grant ourselves. At criticism, cruelty and violence, however, we’re old hands.

My book is littered with folded down page corners (sacrilege I know, but that’s how I roll), all pages that have struck a note, made me skip a breath with the delicacy of Wright’s writing and that slight flare of self-recognition I’m sure so many women will have. Or indeed anyone really who has looked into the mirror and felt themselves unsatisfactory, or worse, inconsequential. But Wright’s book draws a picture that goes so much deeper than this, into food as a control mechanism in a world where it is is entirely possible to always feel out of control.

I’m glad I made it through because it’s one of those rare books that makes you reluctant to pick up another for fear of losing something of it. Still, the reading must go on and I know Small Acts will linger with me for a long time.

I’m disappointed Wright’s book didn’t win the Stella Prize, just as I know Jody is disappointed that Hope Farm by Peggy Frew didn’t either.  But we’re both proud there are so many wonderful female writers in this country and happy that we have an excuse to read so many of them (not that we really need an excuse)!

 Amanda x