Swing Time by Zadie Smith

swing-time-zadie-smith-2016‘Swing Time’ by Zadie Smith tells the story of two mixed-race girls, an unnamed narrator and her friendship with Tracey who grow up together on neighbouring council estates in north-west London in the 1980s. From Fred Astaire to Michael Jackson, music and dance dominate their lives but it is only Tracey who has the real talent to pursue a career as a dancer. The narrator goes to university and works as a personal assistant for mononymous international pop star Aimee who decides to set up a school for girls in west Africa. The story alternates between the past and present and even though the girls spend a considerable time apart in later years, Tracey’s influence can always be felt. 

I have had slightly mixed feelings about Smith’s novels in the past. I found NW a bit sparse and White Teeth sometimes seemed quite self-conscious as a debut novel. However, even though her fifth novel shares a lot of similarities with her previous work, returning to the familiar setting of Smith’s home turf near Kilburn as well as equally familiar themes surrounding race, class and gender, I can safely say that ‘Swing Time’ is the first of her books that has really clicked with me.

The girls’ relationship and power struggle is sometimes reminiscent of the dynamic between Elena and Lila in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels in its similarly nuanced depiction of female friendship from childhood through to early adulthood. Although the scenes in West Africa provide the main setpiece in the second half, it is the episodes set during the girls’ childhood which contain some of the most astute social commentary with powerful observations about identity. The satire of the narrator stumbling into employment shortly after university and working for a vapid pop star (who must surely be largely based on Madonna) with exceptionally naive assumptions about humanitarian aid is also very perceptive.

As is the case in Smith’s previous novels, there is a sense of aimlessness and vagueness in the plot – the narrator is unnamed, as is the African country she visits with Aimee, and she drifts through life with very little direction allowing Aimee to dominate. I normally struggle with books which lack a certain amount of structure but Smith’s ear for authentic dialogue is excellent as is her deft portrayal of the main characters and I felt that these aspects were strong enough in ‘Swing Time’ to carry the novel and its weighty themes whilst avoiding a patronising or lecturing tone.

‘Swing Time’ has been billed as a novel for the millennial generation but I hope its appeal will reach much further than that. Many thanks to Penguin Books for sending me a review copy via NetGalley. ‘Swing Time’ will be published in the UK on 15th November.


Filed under Books

38 responses to “Swing Time by Zadie Smith

  1. Oh, I’ve seen this book on most requested books category on netgalley, and on witter a lot, but this is actually the first time I see someone actually reviewing it.
    From your words, it seems like a book from which a reader could read a lot. If I’ll have a chance, I’ll definitely give it a try.


  2. Absolutely LOVE this review 🙀💕


  3. I did not know about Zadie Smith, and this cover caught my eye. I’ve only read a few books with unnamed narrators. It’s an interesting approach. Thanks for the review!


  4. I agree with your slightly guarded comments about Zadie Smith’s earlier novels, I may give this one a miss unless a copy happens to appear in my Christmas pile…


  5. I’m really looking forward to reading this one!!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I enjoyed this balanced review – you seem to be agreeing with other reviews I’ve seen, too, which is useful!


  7. I just started it, really excited for it! Great review!


  8. I’ve heard similar reactions to Smith’s previous novels, but this one seems to be a bit more approachable. I do think the device of switching between the past and present is a tad overused these days. Still, I’ll definitely keep this one on my TBR list!


  9. I have this on my TBR and look forward to having my first encounter with Zadie Smith finally. I adore this review! You have perfectly summarized your thoughts and impressions. Much appreciated.


  10. I’ve had the same mixed response. I greatly enjoyed White Teeth, found The Autograph Man a little hard-going and really did not engage with On Beauty. I will give Swing Time a go.


  11. I cant wait to get my hands on this one, glad you think its worth a read!


  12. I was really, really curious about this book. Thank you for your accurate review!


  13. Thanks for your honest review. I have been thinking about reading Zadie Smith for the past few years. Now, I am going to, after reading your review of her work!


  14. Thanks for the review, though, I don’t share your reservations regarding Zadie Smith’s work … I really really loved N-W (in a quite good german translation) and enjoyed White Teeeth (in english) as well. Smith’s sound, style and the way she is creating her narratives (your remarks on that are to the point) seem to resonate with me.
    I’m looking forward to read Swing Time (a copy rests on the shelf since a couple of days ;-))


  15. Vanessa

    OMG! This book sounds like a great read. Thanks for this awesome review!


  16. Oh, that’s interesting. I’ve always been put off Zadie Smith because I found White Teeth underwhelming. But any comparison with Ferrante has to be good.


  17. Pingback: My Books of the Year 2016 | A Little Blog of Books

  18. Pingback: The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017: Longlist Predictions | A Little Blog of Books

  19. Pingback: On Beauty by Zadie Smith | A Little Blog of Books

  20. Pingback: The Man Booker Prize 2017 Longlist: Predictions, Possibilities and Preferences | A Little Blog of Books

  21. Pingback: The Man Booker Prize 2017 Longlist | A Little Blog of Books

  22. Pingback: Feel Free by Zadie Smith | A Little Blog of Books

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.