Swing Time by Zadie Smith #ManBookerPrize

The original Swing Time is a film clip of Fred Astaire dancing on stage at a cabaret, with a giant screen behind him, in which three shadow versions of himself attempt to keep up with his energy, his footwork, his dance. In the end they give up and walk off leaving him alone to continue, enrapturing his audience.

In Zadie Smith’s opening to her Swing Time, the protagonist is sitting in London’s Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank of the Thames, having walked aimlessly from the apartment she’s been hiding out in, opposite Lord’s Cricket Ground in St John’s Wood into the city, crossed the river and spontaneously bought a ticket to an event.

During this “conversation with an Austrian film director” they show this clip, which she is very familiar with from her own childhood obsession, and watching it now, she realises how much she has been a shadow in the lives of others, never taking centre stage in her own life, despite the strong passion for music and dance she has had within her all along.

“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. A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.”

Structured in seven parts, from Early Days, Early and Late, Intermission, through Middle Passage, Night and Day, Day and Night to Late Days the novel shows the family life and friendship of the protagonist and her friend Tracey, two girls who take dance classes together when they are seven years old, who live on adjoining North London housing estates, with mothers who aspire for their children to have a different experience than their own and while some may judge them otherwise, they do the best they can to make that so.

“At this early stage Tracey and I were not friends or enemies or even acquaintances: we barely spoke. Yet there was always this mutual awareness, an invisible band strung between us, connecting us and preventing us from straying too deeply into relations with others.”

Tracey is outspoken, the more talented dancer and ambitious, she masks her curiosity and disappointments with malice, telling her friend, they had things “the wrong way around”.

“With everyone else it’s the dad” she says, 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.

Jeni LeGon with Bojangles in a scene from the movie, Hooray for Love. [Merlin Archive]

Tracey’s dance ambitions take her to a special school where she can develop those skills, while her friend reluctantly follows the more academic route her mother has paved for her, ignoring her own passion for singing those old-time songs and the early days Fred Astaire and Jeni LeGon (see her in the video clip below) dance moves. She studies media and looks for admin jobs and for a short time is drawn back into Tracey’s world as a stagehand, when Tracey lands a role in a West End musical.

During her first media job, she has a chance encounter with an ambitious Australian pop star, who later requests her to work for her. The singer attempts to bring her out of her reservedness by taking her somewhere where she feels most herself, a bike ride to Hampstead Heath. Her life is thus viewed through the lens of a woman of extraordinary means, who has a certain kind of power to do and to have anything and anyone she wants, a life that is facilitated by those she employs to keep her from the untidy reality of real life.

It reminded me of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend in its premise of the female friendship, two girls who’ve known each other since childhood, who are simultaneously attracted and repelled by each other, who separate but never entirely sever their precarious connection, toxic yet familiar, fulfilling an unhealed need to be witnessed in their entirety.

The plot takes our narrator out of London to New York and into an African country where the singer wishes to make a difference to girls’ lives by opening a school. Sending her in advance and on numerous occasions, she sees and experiences aspects of life there at greater depth than her employer and becomes increasingly frustrated by what others fail to see, that which she is unable to adequately communicate.

It has not been her place to be forthright (a weakness that while it stayed that way served her well), however she can’t ignore it, especially not since her mother began to realise her own aspirations, rising up out of her situation, educating herself as an adult and becoming a local politician/activist with strong views on West African dictatorships and celebrities that adopt babies from poverty-stricken countries.

If London was unreal, if New York was unreal, they were powerful stage shows: as soon as we were back inside them they not only seemed real but the only possible reality, and decisions made about the village from these locations always appeared to have a certain plausibility while we were making them, and only later, when one or other of us arrived back here, and crossed this river, did the potential absurdity of whatever it was become clear.”

It’s a rich, exciting, thought-provoking novel, even if being the employee of a pop star may sound unreal. In effect, it is more about whether escaping one’s roots and elevating oneself in or associated with fame or success equates to a sense of fulfilment, or whether one is empowered by finding and following one’s passion. Our narrator is attracted to those who appear to her to be true to themselves, focused and unafraid to express it.

As she did with NW, Zadie Smith creates a strong sense of place and community, and through her choice of characters shares many poignant insights and realities of mothers and daughters and the effect the past exerts on the choices they make in the future.

I admit, I do love this novel all the more for having lived in North London for eight years, and in the latter years, in an estate in Kilburn, so I remember these streets and this community from a period in the late 1990’s that brings it alive more so than if it were set in a city I’d never lived in. It’s not necessary to know it, but if you do, it’s like the icing on the cake! I’ve read all Zadie Smith’s novels except The Autograph Man and I’d say now that Swing Time is my favourite. I hope to see it make the shortlist of the Man Booker Prize 2017.

Brilliantly executed, highly recommended.

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Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo #BaileysPrize

Stay With Me is the meaning of the Yoruba, Nigerian first name Rotimi, which in itself is the short version of Oluwarotimi.

“Still they named her Rotimi, a name that implied she was an Abiku child who had come into the world intending to die as soon as she could. Rotimi – stay with me.”

I’m guessing that Ayobami Adebayo uses it as the title to her novel, because it relates to the twin desires of the main characters in the book, Yejide in her yearning to become pregnant and to keep a child, to be the mother she was denied, having been raised by less than kind stepmothers after her mother died in childbirth; and her husband Akin, in his desire to try to keep his wife happy and with him, despite succumbing to the pressures of the stepmothers and his own family, he being the first-born son of the first wife, to produce a son and heir.

“Before I got married I believed love could do anything. I learned soon enough it couldn’t bear the weight of four years without children. If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But even when it’s in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer love.”

Torn between the love of his wife and meeting the expectations of his family, for two years he would resist their suggestions, until the day they came knocking at his door, to inform Yejide that matters had been taken into their hands, that there was nothing she could do but accept it, suggesting it may even help.

“For a while, I did not accept the fact that I had become a first wife, an iyale. Iya Martha was my father’s first wife. When I was a child, I believed she was the unhappiest wife in the family. My opinion did not change as I grew older. At my father’s funeral, she stood beside the freshly dug grave with her narrow eyes narrowed even further and showered curses on every woman my father had made his wife after he had married her. She had begun as always with my long-dead mother, since she was the second woman he had married, the one who had made Iya Martha a first among not-so-equals.”

The narrative is split into five parts and moves between a present in 2008 when Yejide is returning to her husbands hometown for the funeral of his father, and the past which traverses the various stages of their marriage and their attempts to create a family and the effect of the secrets, lies, interferences and silences on their relationship.

The narrative voice moves from first person accounts of both Yejide and Akin, ensuring the reader gains twin perspectives on what is happening (and making us a little unsure of reality) and the more intimate second person narrative in the present day, as each character addresses the other with that more personal “you” voice, they are not in each other’s presence, but they carry on a conversation in their minds, addressing each other, asking questions that will not be answered, wondering what the coming together after all these years will reveal.

The portrayal of the pressures on this couple to meet expectations and the effect of the past on the present are brilliantly conveyed in this engaging novel, which provides a rare insight into a culture and people who live simultaneously in a modern world that hasn’t yet let go of its patriarchal traditions. Denial plays a lead part and when the knowledge it suppresses is at risk of being exposed, violence erupts.

Simultaneously the country is in the midst of a military coup, which also threatens to destabilise the country and puts its citizens in fear for their lives.

The novel also addresses the significant presence of the sickle-cell gene on people’s lives, something that is perhaps little known in the West, but in Nigeria with a population of 112 million people, 25% of adults have or carry the sickle-cell trait, which can cause high infant mortality and problems in later life. It is a genetic blood disorder that affects the haemoglobin within the red blood cells and the recurring pain and complications caused by the disease (for which there is no cure) can interfere with many aspects of a person’s life.

Stay With Me has been longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017, a worthy contender in my opinion and a unique social perspective on issues that are both universal to us all illustrating how in particular they impact the Nigerian culture.

Buy A Copy of Stay With Me via Book Depository

 

Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist #BaileysPrize #InternationalWomensDay

We may well be back to calling it the Women’s Prize for Fiction as it was known in 2013 after the exit of Orange, as Bailey’s sponsorship of the literary prize comes to an end this year and the search is now on for a new sponsor for 2018 and beyond. As co-founder, Chair and Author Kate Mosse put it:

“The Women’s Prize is now 22 years old and about to enter a new chapter, but our aim remains the same: to celebrate the very best writing by women in English from all over the world and to champion diverse voices – in every genre, of any nationality, race, age, country of origin or birth, from any storytelling tradition.”

She reminds us of its origins, a year in which 60% of novels were written by women (70% read by women) and not one shortlisted for the Booker Prize, a time when less than 9% of novels shortlisted for major literary prizes were by women. In a new era of challenges against women, initiatives like this are just as necessary as they were at its conception.

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Reading informs, entertains, helps us understand, makes us reflect, allows us to hear little known or heard voices while fiction makes history, issues and multiple perspectives more accessible by channelling what may be dry subject material into consumable stories. Mosse communicates that so succinctly when she says:

“Novels can reflect our lives, yes, but also help us to stand in another person’s shoes. Show us another way to see the world. They are about empathy, about imagining, about the courage to speak out. Novels slip between the gaps in understanding and help us to listen to voices other than our own.” Kate Mosse

As I did for the 2016 Baileys long list, I will share here a short summary of the nominated books, to help give you an idea of what you might be interested to read. Summaries are from the Women’s Prize for Fiction website.

So, this year it was said the long list would be reduced from 20 titles to 12, however today the announcement has revealed sixteen titles from the 189 novels submitted. I have only read only one, the longest book of the group, Barkskins by Annie Proulx, a book that took ten years of research and writing to complete, and I have two others already on the shelf to read, The Essex Serpent and

The long listed books are as follows:

Stay With Me, Ayobami Adebayo (review) – Unravelling against the social and political turbulence of 80s Nigeria, Stay With Me sings with the voices, colours, joys and fears of its surroundings. A devastating story of the fragility of married love, the undoing of family, the wretchedness of grief and the all-consuming bonds of motherhood. It is a tale about our desperate attempts to save ourselves and those we love from heartbreak.

The Power, Naomi Alderman – Suddenly – tomorrow or the day after – girls find that with a flick of their fingers they can inflict agonizing pain and even death. With this single twist, the four lives at the heart of this extraordinary, visceral novel are utterly transformed, and we look at the world in an entirely new light. What if the power were in women’s hands?

Hag-SeedMargaret Atwood – A modern re-working of Shakespeare’s Tempest. Felix is at the top of his game as Artistic Director for the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. His productions have amazed and confounded. Now he’s staging a Tempest like no other: not only will it boost his reputation, it will heal emotional wounds. Or that was the plan. Instead, after an act of unforeseen treachery, Felix is living exile in a backwoods hovel, haunted by memories of his beloved lost daughter, Miranda. And brewing revenge.

After twelve years, his chance finally arrives in the shape of a theatre course at a nearby prison. Here, Felix and his inmate actors will put on his Tempest and snare the traitors who destroyed him. It’s magic! But will it remake Felix as his enemies fall?

Little Deaths, Emma Flint – It’s the summer of 1965, and the streets of Queens, New York shimmer in a heatwave. One July morning, Ruth Malone wakes to find a bedroom window wide open and her two young children missing. After a desperate search, the police make a horrifying discovery. It’s every mother’s worst nightmare. But Ruth Malone is not like other mothers…


The Mare, Mary Gaitskill – Ginger is in her forties and a recovering alcoholic when she meets and marries Paul. When it becomes clear it’s too late for her to have a baby of her own, she tries to persuade him to consider adoption, but he already has a child from a previous marriage and is ten years older than her, so doesn’t share her longing to be a parent at any cost. As a compromise, they sign up to an organisation that sends poor inner-city kids to stay with country families for a few weeks in the summer, and so one hot July day eleven-year-old Velveteen Vargas, a Dominican girl from one of Brooklyn’s toughest neighbourhoods, arrives in their lives, and Ginger is instantly besotted.

The Dark Circle, Linda Grant – It’s 1949, the Second World War is over and a new decade of recovery is beginning, but for East End teenage twins who have been living on the edge of the law, life has been suspended. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, they are sent away to a sanatorium in Kent to take the cure and submit to the authority of the doctors, learning the deferential way of the patient.

The Lesser Bohemians, Eimear McBride – An eighteen-year-old Irish girl arrives in London to study drama and falls violently in love with an older actor. This older man has a disturbing past that the young girl is unprepared for. The young girl has a troubling past of her own. This is her story and their story.

MidwinterFiona Melrose – Father and son, Landyn and Vale Midwinter are Suffolk farmers, living together on land their family has worked for generations. But they are haunted there by a past they have long refused to confront: the death of Cecelia, beloved wife and mother, when Vale was just a child. Both men have carried her loss, unspoken. Until now.
With the onset of a mauling winter, something between them snaps. While Vale makes increasingly desperate decisions, Landyn retreats, finding solace in the land, his animals – and a vixen who haunts the farm and seems to bring with her both comfort and protection.


The Sport of Kings, C.E. Morgan – Hellsmouth, an indomitable thoroughbred filly, runs for the glory of the Forge family, one of Kentucky’s oldest and most powerful dynasties. Henry Forge has partnered with his daughter, Henrietta, in an endeavour of raw obsession: to breed a champion.
But when Allmon Shaughnessy, an ambitious young black man, comes to work on their farm after a stint in prison, the violence of the Forges’ history and the exigencies of appetite are brought starkly into view. Entangled by fear, prejudice and lust, the three tether their personal dreams of glory to the speed and power of Hellsmouth.

The Woman Next Door, Yewande Omotoso -Hortensia and Marion are next door neighbours in a charming, bougainvillea-laden Cape Town suburb. One is black, one white. Both are successful women with impressive careers behind them. Both have recently been widowed. Both are in their eighties.  And both are sworn enemies, sharing hedge and hostility pruned with zeal.
But one day an unforeseen event forces the women together. Could long-held mutual loathing transform into friendship?  Love thy neighbour? Easier said than done?

The Lonely Hearts HotelHeather O’Neill – Two babies are abandoned in a Montreal orphanage in the winter of 1914. Before long, their talents emerge: Pierrot is a piano prodigy; Rose lights up even the dreariest room with her dancing and comedy. As they travel around the city performing clown routines, the children fall in love with each other and dream up a plan for the most extraordinary and seductive circus show the world has ever seen.

The Essex SerpentSarah Perry – London 1893. When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness: her marriage was not a happy one, and she never suited the role of society wife. Accompanied by her son Francis – a curious, obsessive boy – she leaves town for Essex, where she hopes fresh air and open space will provide the refuge they need.
When they take lodgings in Colchester, they hear rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned to the coastal parish of Aldwinter. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, is immediately enthralled, convinced that what the local people think is a magical beast may be a previously undiscovered species.

Barkskins, Annie Proulx (reviewed) – In the late seventeenth century, two penniless young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in New France. Bound to a feudal lord, a ‘seigneur’, for three years in exchange for land, they become wood-cutters – barkskins. René suffers extraordinary hardship, oppressed by the forest he is charged with clearing. He is forced to marry a Mi’kmaw woman and their descendants live trapped between two inimical cultures. But Duquet, crafty and ruthless, runs away from the seigneur, becomes a fur trader, then sets up a timber business.
Proulx tells the stories of the descendants of Sel and Duquet over three hundred years – their travels across North America, to Europe, China and New Zealand, under stunningly brutal conditions: the revenge of rivals; accidents; pestilence; Indian attacks; and cultural annihilation.

First Love, Gwendoline Riley – Neve is a writer in her mid-thirties married to an older man, Edwyn. For now they are in a place of relative peace, but their past battles have left scars. As Neve recalls the decisions that led her to this marriage, she tells of other loves and other debts, from her bullying father and self-involved mother to a musician who played her and a series of lonely flights from place to place.
Drawing the reader into the battleground of her relationship, Neve spins a story of helplessness and hostility, an ongoing conflict in which both husband and wife have played a part. But is this, nonetheless, also a story of love?

Do Not Say We Have NothingMadeleine Thien (review) – In Canada in 1990, ten-year-old Marie and her mother invite a guest into their home: a young woman who has fled China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests. Her name is Ai-ming.
As her relationship with Marie deepens. Ai-ming tells the story of her family in revolutionary China, from the crowded teahouses in the first days of Chairman Mao’s ascent to the Shangahi Conservatory in the 1960s and the events leading to the Beijing demonstrations of 1989. It is a history of revolutionary idealism, music and silence, in which three musicians, the shy and brilliant composer Sparrow, the violin prodigy Zhuli, and the enigmatic pianist Kai struggle during China’s relentless Cultural Revolution to remain loyal to one another and to the music they have devoted their lives to. Forced to re-imagine their artistic and private selves, their fates reverberate through the years, with deep and lasting consequences for Ai-ming – and for Marie.

The Gustav Sonata, Rose Tremain – What is the difference between friendship and love? Or between neutrality and commitment? Gustav Perle grows up in a small town in ‘neutral’ Switzerland, where the horrors of the Second World War seem a distant echo. But Gustav’s father has mysteriously died, and his adored mother Emilie is strangely cold and indifferent to him. Gustav’s childhood is spent in lonely isolation, his only toy a tin train with painted passengers staring blankly from the carriage windows.
As time goes on, an intense friendship with a boy of his own age, Anton Zwiebel, begins to define Gustav’s life. Jewish and mercurial, a talented pianist tortured by nerves when he has to play in public, Anton fails to understand how deeply and irrevocably his life and Gustav’s are entwined.

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Lots of interesting titles to consider! I’d like to read Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo after reading an excellent review by Eric at Lonesome Reader (click on the link to read his review).  He will be reading all the books along with the other members of the Shadow Panel, organised by Naomi at The Writes of Women

So which titles are you interested in reading?

Click here to buy one of the titles mentioned above via BookDepository