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Tango and tears: Annetjie van Wynegaard reviews Zadie Smith's Swing Time

Swing Time is a dramatic dance, but it’s also about race, class, sexuality, and identity, writes Annetjie van Wynegaard for the Sunday Times

Swing TimeSwing Time
Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
*****

Win a signed copy of Swing Time here!

“It was the first day of my humiliation.” These are the opening lines to Zadie Smith’s exuberant new novel, Swing Time. The story starts just as it’s about to end, with exile and a scandal. In present-day London, the unnamed narrator finds herself in a hotel room with the curtains drawn and her phone switched off – shamed, shunned and shut off from the world.

Like the Sankofa bird with its neck eternally bent backwards, a recurring motif in the novel, the narrator looks to the beginning of her life, which she marks not as her birth but the day she met her best friend Tracey. The first thing she notes is the difference between their mothers – the narrator’s mother is a determined yet aloof autodidact from Jamaica; Tracey’s white mother’s only ambition is to “get on the disability”. Despite their differences – the narrator’s family is slightly better off than Tracey’s, yet the latter is the one with all the expensive toys – the two girls become closer than sisters. Their friendship is cemented in their shared passion for dance. The first part of the novel is a beautiful coming-of-age story of two very different girls who continue to have a lasting effect on each other’s lives into adulthood, even from a distance.

The adult narrator is, not unlike her mother, not a very likeable character. Neither is Tracey. Both girls grow up and away from each other, into roles they didn’t so much choose as submit to. Tracey, the ambitious one, makes it into dance school, while the more academically minded narrator sabotages her own chances of getting into a good school as an act of rebellion against her mother. Still driven by her love for music and dance, she becomes a personal assistant to a superstar celebrity named Aimee.

Her relationship with Aimee echoes the passive-aggressive patterns of her friendship with Tracey. Aimee is happy to have her around, as long as she’s at her beck and call and knows who the real star is. When Aimee decides to build a school in a rural West African village, the narrator starts to see her for who she really is – someone who takes and exploits and dominates. From here the story unravels fast, until the two ends meet once again.

Swing Time is a story about relationships – between two mixed-race girls, between mothers and daughters, between fathers and daughters, between friends and co-workers – and the power relations within these relationships and how they shift over time.

It’s also about race, class, sexuality, and identity. Early on in the novel little Tracey informs the unnamed narrator that having a white father is different from having a white mother.

“It turned out Tracey was as curious about my family as I was about hers, arguing, with a certain authority, that we had things ‘the wrong way round’. I listened to her theory one day during break, dipping a biscuit anxiously into my orange squash. ‘With everyone else it’s the dad,’ she said, and because I knew this to be more or less accurate I could think of nothing more to say. ‘When your dad’s white it means —’ she continued, but at that moment Lily Bingham came and stood next to us and I never did learn what it meant when your dad was white.”

In a recent essay in The Guardian, Smith writes: “I feel dance has something to tell me about what I do.” The inspiration of dance is evident between the pages of Swing Time. The novel moves effortlessly between the different timelines, pulsing and vibrating with its own rhythmic energy, flawless in its execution, demanding that you hold your breath until the very last beat.

Follow Annetjie van Wynegaard on Twitter @Annetjievw

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Nakhane Toure's Piggy Boy's Blues to be taught at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee

Nakhane Toure

 
Piggy Boy's BluesBlackBird Books has announced that Piggy Boy’s Blues by Nakhane Touré will be taught at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, United States.

Piggy Boy’s Blues has been adopted for the spring 2017 course “The Contemporary African Novel”.

The news comes just a week after Touré was longlisted for the 2016 Etisalat Prize for Literature.

Known for his music, Sama award-winning musician Touré has changed tune with the release of his debut novel, Piggy Boy’s Blues. The novel, which has been described as reading fragments of a recurring dream, centres on the disastrous consequences of a man’s return to his Eastern Cape home town of Alice. Touré’s work is poetic with sensuous prose.

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Out of the mouths of unborn babies: Sue de Groot reviews Ian McEwan's Nutshell

Ian McEwan’s new novel has an unexpected narrator. By Sue de Groot for the Sunday Times

NutshellNutshell
Ian McEwan(Penguin Random House)
****

You don’t have to be familiar with Shakespeare’s Hamlet to enjoy Ian McEwan’s latest novel, but it helps. Allusions and inferences and in-jokes abound, from the title (“Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams,” said Hamlet) to the names (the narrator’s mother is Trudy and his wicked uncle is Claude – Gertrude and Claudius, geddit?) to the baked meats ordered from a delicatessen after a murder.

Unlike Hamlet, the protagonist of Nutshell has a good excuse for his dithering passivity – he cannot take up arms against an amniotic sea of troubles because he is still trapped within his mother’s womb, waiting to be born.

Most people give a shiver of distaste at the thought of a story told from a foetus’s point of view, but this book is not visceral or gross – it is engaging and thoughtful, a thriller that sometimes veers into comedy.

Readers of a sceptical bent will have to suspend rational objections to the advanced intellect of an organism yet to enter the world. McEwan solves the problem of how an unborn child has such an extensive vocabulary thus: “How is it that I, not even young, not even born yesterday, could know so much, or know enough to be wrong about so much? I have my sources. I listen.”

From his mother’s ears “sound waves travel through jawbone and clavicle, down through her skeletal structure, swiftly through the nourishing amniotic”. He listens closely to news broadcasts, source of bad dreams, and absorbs knowledge through his mother’s addiction to podcasts (no doubt the pun is intentional) on all manner of subjects: “self-improving audio books … biographies of 17th-century playwrights, and various world classics”.

There is dark humour in his appreciation of the wine that reaches him via his mother’s bloodstream – and perhaps a subtle warning to pregnant imbibers of alcohol – but it is the live conversations, permeating porous skin, that provide the meat of the plot: “Lodged where I am, nothing to do but grow my body and mind, I take in everything.”

This is a strangely effective place from which to examine and dissect human flaws and foolishness, desires and discoveries. Like Hamlet, this narrator is not a fully formed human but a sounding board, a tabula rasa, a reflective surface for the unravelling of those around him. And the ending, when it comes, it not nearly as predictable as one might expect.

Follow @deGrootS1

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Andy Martin describes the unusual process of writing Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me

Published in the Sunday Times

Reacher Said NothingReacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me
Andy Martin (Penguin Random House)

“I’ve just written this great four-word sentence,” said Lee Child. “Come and have a look.” He ushered me into his apartment in Manhattan overlooking Central Park. He works in an office in the back, adorned with framed pages of the New York Times bestseller lists featuring his own novels sitting squarely at no. 1. I perched on the couch and he hit me with his four words. They were good words. High quality, high value. Each word emerging from his keyboard was worth $100. Each of his books is at least 100 000 words long. Make Me, the book he was working on, was his 20th Jack Reacher novel. You do the math.

Child, numero uno thriller writer, a giant in airport bookstores around the world, is half-poet, half-pirate, both ruthless materialist and dreamy head-in-the-clouds fantasist. The real mystery was: what the hell was I doing there? Which is a question a lot of his friends were asking. “Lee, hold on a second. You’ve got a Cambridge academic sitting behind you watching you write? You cannot be serious, man! He’s going to put you off your stroke. He is a literary voyeur!”

It was a crazy idea, I admit. Bear witness to the moment of creation, be there while a writer is writing and write about him writing in real time. Follow the composition of an entire novel from the first word (“Moving”) all the way through to the last word (“needle”). Capture the process at close quarters, try to climb inside the writer’s head, spectate while the words are spun into a book, like watching an alchemist transform lead into gold. Complete madness, obviously.

But Child said, “Yes, cool idea. You’d better get over here. I’m starting next Monday.” He always starts a new book on September 1, it’s a religion with him. It could have been any writer, in theory. But Donna Tartt takes 10 years, so I crossed her off. And Albert Camus was dead. I saw Child as not just a bestselling phenomenon, but as a serious writer whose first book, Killing Floor, reads like a sequel to Camus’s The Outsider.

Child has this theory that anyone in the world might want to kill quite a few people, given the opportunity. Jack Reacher kills people on our behalf. He enacts the revenge we so rarely get the chance to carry out ourselves. He is a Messiah and avenging angel all rolled into one. And he is like a kid, just a very big one (1.95m and 113kg).

Those four words? Reacher is surveying the street before breaking into a house. It’s empty. “No eyes, no interest,” Child writes. A characteristic structure: “No x, no y.” No hell, no heaven. A double negation. Notice that, in those four words, Reacher is an inaction hero. And this for me is what makes Reacher work, as a protagonist. Of course he beats people to death with his elbows. But he is also a philosopher who thinks his way through his fights.

Child is the same when it comes to writing. I didn’t really have to ask him questions. He was like Lionel Messi running rings around the opposition and at the same time commentating on what he is doing and exactly how he is going to score.

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The problem with death: Oliver Roberts reviews Don DeLillo's Zero K

In his latest novel Don DeLillo returns to imponderable themes, writes Oliver Roberts for the Sunday Times

Zero KZero K
Don DeLillo (Picador)
****

In Don DeLillo’s ninth novel, White Noise, narrator Jack Gladney asks, in relation to himself and his wife Babette, “Who will die first?” Later on, Jack discovers that Babette is taking a black-market drug called Dylar that reduces the fear of death, while Jack – after being exposed to toxic air after a chemical explosion – finds out, via computer analysis, that it is he who is more likely to die first.

Jump forward 31 years and seven novels, and the characters in Zero K are jostling with the same fears of death and loneliness, and asking (in just one passage of dialogue):

“Why should some keep living while others die?”

“What good are we if we live forever?”

“What ultimate truth will we confront?”

“Isn’t the sting of our eventual dying what makes us precious to the people in our lives?”

“What does it mean to die?”

“Where are the dead?”

“When do you stop being who you are?”

Critics of DeLillo have said that he too often poses these kinds of questions without ever really answering them. For others, however, this open-endedness is precisely what they love about reading DeLillo – the experience is, at times, like having a philosophical discussion with him right there in the room with you.

You don’t read DeLillo for a strong plot, reliable structure and/or solid resolution – you read him for his charged sentences, his posing of those difficult and sometimes unanswerable questions, the way in which he lends everyday occurrences a mysterious meaning, and for the eerie, soothsayer-like prescience that has marked so many of his works.

And if the mid-2000s saw a slight straying from type in his novels Cosmopolis and Point Omega, Zero K marks a more extended return to the mystical tones of White Noise, Libra and even his magnum opus, Underworld. Considering that DeLillo will turn 80 in November, this is quite a feat. If anyone is edging towards immortality, it is the writer himself.

In Zero K, we are taken to a compound in the middle of an Uzbekistan desert where an organisation called “The Convergence” is offering cryogenic preservation to the dying or those who are still healthy but will not accept death. In both instances, the idea is that the body will be frozen until a cure for death has been found.

Protagonist Jeffrey Lockhart travels to the compound to visit his billionaire father (and Convergence benefactor) Ross, who is there to support his wife (Jeffrey’s step-mother) Artis – who is suffering with multiple sclerosis – as she prepares for the cryogenic process. The compound is the kind of trippy DeLilloworld regular readers have come to know and depend on – a strange place with humanoid and sometimes mute characters roaming the halls, multiple doors that seem to lead to nowhere, and TV screens all over showing unsettling and/or unrelated footage.

And it’s cold, too, in its architectural character – lots of glass and aluminium – in the thoughts and mannerisms of members of The Convergence, and in the ambience of the confusing white passageways, which all eventually lead to the place where the living go to be cryogenically suspended.

“I walked the halls,” says Jeffrey Lockhart. “The doors were painted in gradations of muted blue and I tried to name the shades. Sea, sky, butterfly, indigo. All these were wrong and I began to feel more foolish with every step I took and every door I scrutinised. I wanted to see a door open and a person emerge.”

The idea of this suspended state between life and death is explored with characteristic dreaminess, inanity and a kind of anxiety-ridden search for truth, for solid answers, which of course DeLillo never really gives because, as usual, he appears to adore navigating concepts that are unknowable. One chapter is simply the (imagined?) fractured thoughts of Artis as she lies in her suspended state. Her questions come without question marks, the message perhaps being that the complexity of these questions turn them into statements.

“But where is here. And how long am I here and am I only what is here,” she asks.

“Does it keep going on like this.”

“Am I someone or is it just the words themselves that make me think I’m someone.”

Zero K is not for DeLillo neophytes. A better entry into his work would be 1985’s White Noise, to which Zero K appears, either by design or development, to be a type of sequel, returning to the same kind of questions while providing different solutions, different and more desperate ways to defeat death or at least delay it.

DeLillo’s readers will be hoping that the writer himself will continue to do the latter for a little while yet.

The life and times of Don DeLillo

  • Born on 20 November 1936 in the Bronx, New York. His parents came to the US from Italy.
  • He was a copywriter at a Madison Avenue advertising agency (the TV series Mad Men is set in the same period).
  • He quit his job in 1964. “I quit my job just to quit. I didn’t quit my job to write fiction. I just didn’t want to work anymore.”
  • He is also a playwright.
  • His first novel was Americana, published in 1971.
  • His ninth novel, White Noise, won the National Book Award.
  • David Cronenberg directed the film Cosmopolis, based on DeLillo’s novel. Released in 2012, it starred Robert Pattinson.

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Top chefs reveal the food they make for the people they love in The Great South African Cookbook

The Great South African CookbookThe Great South African Cookbook: The food we love from 67 of our finest cooks, chefs, bakers, farmers, foragers and local food heroes!

Ever wondered what Reuben Riffel likes to eat when he’s at home with his family? What about the secret to Cass Abrahams’ curry or Jan Braai’s perfect steak? And how exactly does an oyster farmer prefer to eat her prize molluscs? We asked South Africa’s favourite chefs, cooks, producers and local food heroes a simple question: “What is the food you make for the people you love?”

The result is The Great South African Cookbook – 67 contributors, 150 recipes and 372 pages with personal stories from each contributor alongside stunning photography shot entirely on location around South Africa.

Culinary legends and renowned chefs including Luke Dale-Roberts, Ina Paarman, Dorah Sithole, Pete Goffe-Wood, and Siphokazi Mdlankomo star alongside local food heroes: from salt harvesters in the Limpopo to strawberry producers in KwaZulu-Natal and Kalk Bay’s catch of the day in the Western Cape; from Mpumalanga to the Northern Cape and the suburbs and townships of Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg, these food heroes opened their homes and hearts and shared recipes they make for the people they love.

“My past has a big impact on how I cook today. I love it when I get to see my kids’ smiling faces as they tuck into bowls of hearty goodness, pretty much the same food that I used to enjoy as a child. What more can a parent ask for?” says restaurateur and MasterChef judge Reuben Riffel.

For Justine Drake it’s all about love; “The secret to preparing, cooking and serving delicious food is keep it fresh and simple, but more importantly to do it with love,” she says.

Siba Mtongana agrees: “Food is all about family and friends, and putting your heart into preparing a meal is the same as presenting them with a wonderful gift.”

The Holy Cow’s Yudhika Sujanani was inspired by her grandmother; “I grew up doing my homework at the kitchen table, cherishing the warm aromas and hearing the gentle swish of my gran’s sari as she moved about from one kitchen task to the next. The kitchen was the heart of our home, and the heartbeat was the food that came out of it. Love is always the secret ingredient that turns ordinary food into magnicent feasts.”

This uniquely South African collection of recipes, guided by editorial steering committee Cass Abrahams, Hilary Biller, Phillippa Cheifitz, David Higgs, Reuben Riffel, Dorah Sithole, Errieda du Toit and Anna Trapido, and brought to life by the distinctive art of Conrad Botes, will support the Nelson Mandela Foundation who will receive all royalties from sales of the book to develop and support community food and agricultural projects to aid in the upliftment of the impoverished through food sustainability and empowerment, in partnership with Food & Trees for Africa.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation’s Chief Executive Sello Hatang said, “The Great South African Cookbook is a showcase of what we have, rather than what we don’t have, as a country. For both me and for the Nelson Mandela Foundation, it means we’ll be able to touch and change lives with food; it’s in everyone’s hands to help make a difference.”

Inspired by Madiba’s example, Tiger Brands, who is the principal sponsor of the book, wanted to give South Africa’s future chefs an opportunity to showcase their talent. “No initiative that pays tribute to Madiba would be quite complete without weaving in his passion for our youth”, says Group Executive for Corporate Affairs and Sustainability at Tiger Brands, Bridgitte Backman. The company partnered with the Department of Higher Education to identify culinary colleges in all nine provinces, and invited students to enter a competition in which they answered the same question as all the other contributors: “What do you cook for the people you love?” The 10 winning recipes that appear in the book are testament to the fact that the inspiration to cook always comes from the heart.

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