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Swing Time by Zadie Smith
Literary fiction

Swing Time

by Zadie Smith

Quick take

The book feels like the culmination of all her talents: a gift for character and dialogue, a story rooted in a deep cultural and racial awareness

Why I love it

Kevin Nguyen

Zadie Smith means different things to different people. Some arrive at her novels first, like the ambitious family saga White Teeth, finding a self-assured voice that marked her as an immediate fiction talent. Others discovered Zadie Smith the versatile cultural critic who could write a loving review for the 50 Cent movie Get Rich or Die Tryin’. Smith is an ambidextrous writer'”perhaps just a natural talent at everything'”who remains a venerable and beloved literary figure.

Swing Time will surprise no one'”and I mean that with the highest praise. The book feels like the culmination of all her talents: a novel with a gift for character and dialogue, a story rooted in a deep cultural and racial awareness. At its core, Swing Time is about two black girls raised in the same public housing complex in London. Tracey is a dancer; the other (never named) wishes she could dance, but is raised by intellectuals who instead push her to understand her black consciousness. 'œAll that matters in this world is what’s written down,' her mother explains. Then, gesturing at her body: 'œthat will never matter, not in this culture, not for these people.'

The book is long, but it moves quickly. Smith has composed her novel out of short scenes, little moments of funny dialogue and seemingly benign interactions that add up to a sophisticated portrait of friendship. As Tracey and the narrator grow up, they grow apart. The narrator ends up working for a pop star named Aimee, a job that takes her all over the world, and eventually to a village in West Africa, where she oversees her boss’s well-intentioned but ill-conceived philanthropy work. While it starts with a narrow view of the two friends, the novel broadens in scope and ultimately has a perspective on epic proportions of wealth and also devastating poverty. But through it all, her falling out with Tracey always lingers in her mind.

Like any good story about dancing, Swing Time is possessed by its interest in the human body and the way it moves. The title of the book references a Fred Astaire movie wherein Astaire dances in blackface. And yet, the narrator can’t help but adore Swing Time '”an irony that hangs over the entire novel. As she explains in the book’s opening pages, it’s the dancing that’s most important in a musical: 'œThe story was the price you paid for the rhythm.' Think of Zadie Smith’s Swing Time as a corrective, where both the story and the rhythm are total joys.

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Member thoughts

All (1255)
All (1255)
Love (415)
Like (574)
Dislike (266)
1374 ratings
  • 30% Love
  • 42% Like
  • 19% Dislike
  • Port Murray, NJ

    Swing Time is a story about race, feminism, female friendship, relationships...It covers so much and does it so well. It doesn't hurt that Smith is a FANTASTIC writer. Can't wait to read more from her

  • Kansas City, MO

    I am in constant awe of Smith's ability to step back and think through things clearly, bursting through my own personal cognitive dissonance and forcing me to look at the world from a different angle.

  • Madison, IN

    The depth of this story is both emotionally enriching and academically provoking. Themes of intersectionality, family institutions, globalization, friendship, and dance weave this beautiful narration.

  • Hayward , CA

    A thoughtful portrait of two women coming of age together, both reckoning with their place in the world and to what degree that's determined by race, neighborhood, family, ambition, talent, luck, fate

  • Charlottesville, VA

    Zadie Smith DELIVERS. Swing Time, with so much nuance, touches on the appropriation of black art throughout time and space. This book has lingered in my mind since I finished it several weeks ago.

  • San Francisco , CA

    I have always loved Zadie's novels and this one did not disappoint. Beautifully written with complex characters that I found struggling to hate and love. My heart ached so many times throughout.

  • Midlothian, VA

    My first Zadie Smith book and LOVED it! I loved the setting and the characters in this story. Everything about this book was lovely, even with characters overcoming their own personal conflicts.

  • New York, NY

    Zadie seems so untouchable, and true some of the themes in this one are complicated and larger than life. But the girls, the friendship, is so accessible, relatable and truthful. Beautiful story.

  • Belmont, MA

    Zadie Smith is one of the best authors of our time. Her understanding of the experience of young women is unparalleled. After reading this book, I will read everything she writes in the future.

  • Los Angeles, CA

    I absolutely loved the character development in this book. I loved diving into the complexities of a friendship found in girlhood and how that friendship developed over the span of their lives.

  • Fort Lauderdale, FL

    Dense with representations & critiques of many societal & cultural "-isms", shown thru the story of a truly complex protagonist. Not a light read, well worth the time and emotional commitment.

  • Los Angeles, CA

    Loved this novel. I found so much in it I could relate to as an examination of what it means to be fully and naturally obsessed over our female friendships - a topic that is often overlooked.

  • Rapid City, SD

    Fantastic prose and engaging descriptions of the dynamics of growing up low-income, adolescent soul searching and the problem of charity in third world countries. Long but very well written.

  • Austin, TX

    I love her book. It can be slow... BUT It is something different. female friendship. modern culture. timeless themes. family. music. dances. sex. race. class. It was truly powerful book. WOW!

  • Rockville, MD

    Zadie Smith is a luminescent writer. It seems this book is more about the ways to be/become a woman than it is about a friendship. Admittedly, the Aimee parts drag and are a little too long.

  • Lafayette Hill, PA

    Required reading for everyone this year. Such an interesting perspective on how money, status, race, location and gender affect people's lives and relationships all throughout the world.

  • Pittsburgh, PA

    Smith is able to cram so much information into efficient paragraphs. I didn't really wonder much about what would happen next so much as enjoyed being with the characters in their world.

  • Lawrence, KS

    Zadie smith’s writing is like settling in to a hot tub that you want to sit in all night. The storytelling and characters are so cleanly developed you can smell her mothers apartment.

  • Omaha, NE

    A novel examining race, dance, and female friendship that really challenges the reader to think critically about the different paths our lives take and the systems that take them there.

  • Cartersville, GA

    First time reading Zadie Smith. Won't be my last. Her exploration of friendship and race felt novel and compelling. She is also deliberate with details. Unclunky writing. Great book.

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