Book Review: Swing Time by Zadie Smith

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, about 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.

In the opening chapters, I thought ‘yes, I’m going to love this..’ Why? An engaging first person narrative, with beautifully observed writing. Tracey, the rugged companion, full of verve, drive and passion. The narrator’s mother, the mousey father. I loved the reflection on the childhood friendship that I expected to be at the heart of the book. I wondered how their story would pan out. I was thrown, then, when the narrator (unnamed) was suddenly under the influence of someone else, Aimee, a child-like pop-star, to whom the narrator seemingly surrendered. It was here that I fell out of love with Swing Time, and became frustrated with the direction of the book, and the main character.

There was little joy in Swing Time, and at times this was wearing. That the main protagonist had no name was interesting – because she simply subsumed herself into others. Her mother, her friend Tracey, her boss. She was flat, and flattened, and this made for turgid reading at times. That said, I never felt like giving up, because I thought that there was more to resolve with Tracey. There was, but I’m not sure that Swing Time delivered that.

Family, friendships, race, feminism, philanthropy, loyalty – Swing Time tackles big themes, but the incoherence in the narration, from a main character without a strong voice, meant that the themes were rather echoes, with some rambling speeches (mother, Aimee, Fern, Lamin, Judy) that were easy to gloss over.

Smith’s writing is the saviour of the book. Such clarity of sentence, powerful imagery and superb dialogue. She clearly had something to explore, but sadly, for me, the choice of central character meant that the book lacked something, and wasn’t the book that I was expecting it to be. Disappointing.

Keep on running…

I saw an image/commentary that I on Instagram yesterday (@movetobewell) that stopped and made me think. Firstly, about how much we censor ourselves. Secondly, how much of the insta/Facebook/blog space is censored (self-censored), which is why I have a love-hate relationship with it. Images capture moments, like words, but they are seldom stories, which means that we see only moments, true only in that moment. Thirdly, what on earth was I doing vacuously tracking some posts, threads and images that did not amuse (mostly dogs, mostly black labradors), inspire or motivate?  As my therapist recently said:

Don’t let it rule you; you decide

So I deleted some stuff, hid some others. And felt a whole lot better.

What @movetobewell also had me thinking about, was my body. 18 months after lung surgery, and my ribs, I realised, actually don’t hurt. They are not sore, whether it’s lying on them (awkward for a long while) or asking them to work hard. A week or so I decided it’s time to claim back my cardiovascular fitness, because I am not as fit as I want to be. @movetobewell may have had a wobble at her pins (mighty strong and fine as I see them to be), but my ‘sigh’ is my general fitness, and a body heading towards menopause (but that’s a whole other topic). So, I’ve started running again. I ran a lot once upon a time, and entered a few races, enough to earn a jangle of medallions. There is a a network of lanes from the house, that means I can do a ‘tricorn’. Each one of those is about one km. Last week I did two, and today I did three without stopping. I cannot begin to explain how fantastic this makes me feel. I am no hare, but a few up from tortoise, but I will get quicker, as my lung capacity improves.

Keep on running

I know that trends in health and fitness come and go, and that the popular movement today celebrates HIIT. I get that, but if I am to become a better gig rower (my aim), then being able to smash something for a short while isn’t going to test my stamina. So, I’m back outside, on the roads, making my lungs work harder, so that I can be a fitter version of myself. It never made me thin, but it made me strong.

Running also is a great shifter of process. Last week I reconnected with how invaluable it used to be for me when I was a practising therapist. It is also true of walking, but these days, I am watching the puppy too much to let my thoughts wander. Running has always been like meditation (once I’m over the hump of ‘oh this hurts’), and I am looking forward to the day, maybe in a couple of months, when I can settle in to a long run, and really enjoy it. Running always used to be about more than fitness, it was a saviour of my mental health. I am hoping that as me and my running shoes eat up the miles, it will also bring me a better sense of myself. I am still a bit adrift, a bit lost, after the traumatic experience of my left lung breaking.

But onwards and upwards. September is coming, and somehow that’s like a second chance at January. The MA will be starting, and I will be running further and rowing better.  And of course, it means that Strictly is on the horizon. Bring on the glitter!


Book Review: The Swordfish and The Star, by Gavin Knight

I bought this book because I was completely engrossed by an article in The Sunday Times that was written by Knight, based on his book. The focus of this article ‘Cornwall Uncovered’, timed for the annual invasion of tourists to our county, considers what life is like for the remnants of the fishing communities that exist on the fringes of the westernmost coastline of the UK. Knight spent time with several people within these communities, and the book narrates their tales.

The Swordfish and The Star is a narrative non-fiction, with a feel like you’re eavesdropping on yarns being spun in a pub. It fits then that the book is named after two pubs in Newlyn. The book is rambling, and at times feels like there is a lack of focus, unlike the pithy, well-argued article in The Sunday Times. The narratives come from the men (mostly) that Knight interviewed, and their stories are written in layers around each other, with the feel that the voices are clamouring to be heard. I am not convinced, having read the book, that I have any one story straight in my mind. There is a vast call of characters, and at times it is confusing.

What I loved about The Swordfish and The Star was the fascinating insight into the lives of the fishing communities, and the harshness of the existence. It is a social history of today, drawing on parallels of the Cornish of the past. Knight explores the essence of the Cornish – a lawless, maverick and isolated people. Those wanting independence, and perhaps a resentment of the ‘emmets’. That argument is lost in the closing scene, where the tourists are seen to be part of the weekly shanty-singing evening in the Cadgwith pub.

Where I thought the book fell short was that Knight, keen to explore the myths and legends of the past, seemed to be taken in by those told to him during his research. This is as much a part of the Cornish of today. Yarns are spun, tales are exaggerated, and I wondered where the lines of truths were. Everyone loves a good story, and the Cornish are happy to embellish when someone has their ear.

Overall, Knight’s book is compelling, and illuminates the harshness of the Cornish winters and the rural poor. A world away from the cream teas, the Padsteins and the affluent second homers and holiday makers that drift down from upcountry. Cornwall is one of the poorest regions in the UK, with one of the poorest towns in the EU, and Knight does well to explore that. However, his article does it with more clarity.