Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 29, 2016

Swing Time (2016), by Zadie Smith

swing-timeFor most of this new novel from Zadie Smith, I really liked it and considered it the best of her work that I’ve read (NW, and On Beauty, with White Teeth on my TBR). It was only towards the end of Swing Time when the narrator is floundering around in a morass of self-abnegation that I lost confidence in what the author was doing.  But that was not enough to make me dislike the book: it really is very good reading.

The main body of the novel is the coming-of-age of two ‘brown’ girls growing up in London’s Kilburn, formerly an Irish enclave and now a multicultural melting pot.  Their girls’ future prospects seem preordained by their lowly social and economic status, but they share a passionate interest in dance and spend long hours watching old Hollywood musicals and perfecting the moves they become so adept at analysing.  They both attend Miss Isabel’s Dance School but only Tracey has real talent… the un-named narrator doesn’t quite have it.  Just as in Swing music, where the emphasis is on the off–beat or weaker pulse in the music, the narrator sees herself always as the weaker part of any relationships that she has.  Despite her mother’s passionate efforts to ensure that her daughter transcends expectations, she always just misses the beat: she wears the wrong clothes to a ‘white’ birthday party, and the university she eventually goes to is second-tier.  And although she ends up in a glamour job with an international celebrity (who seems to be based on Madonna) while Tracey never gets beyond the chorus line, this narrator is always on the fringes, trailing along behind the others who seem to be in control of their destiny as she is not.

Zadie Smith is intensely conscious of race, exposing all kinds of ways in which it impacts on life, but Swing Time isn’t focussed on identity politics.  It’s more about class and ambition and how choices that more fortunate people take for granted don’t seem to be available for these characters.  Tracey’s father is a ne’er-do-well, in and out of prison, but she has constructed a rich fantasy life for him where he is a dancer on the international stage which is why, she brags, that he’s never home.  Her mother is one of those hopeless cases who has typecast herself into an emblem of poverty.  With a perpetual cigarette hanging out of her mouth,  and a too-obvious collection of tawdry clothes, she can’t do much more than give Tracey a chaotic home life and a sense of grievance that manifests itself in a-social behaviour at school and on the streets.

Tracey has an insolent way of just not caring about anything except dance, and the narrator’s mother would rather her daughter had other friends.  This mother is a stunning creation: a woman of great ambition who manages to self-educate herself into a place at university and then council politics and a career as a social activist MP.  Her nose is perpetually in a book, and her conversations are all around radical politics so her daughter’s devotion to a career in dance is a grave disappointment.  So is her husband, a nice (over-idealised) man who holds the family together until his lack of ambition, his intellectual inadequacy and his disinterest in social activism leads to the breakdown of their relationship.

The evocation of teenage friendship is rich in detail: each page is littered with music, film, celebrity news and fashion and the portrayal of an indissoluble bond between these girls is so powerful that it’s all the more astonishing when the bond is broken in adulthood.  As in the Ferrante novel My Brilliant Friend  the catalyst for severance is a departure into a different social world while the other stays behind, fulfilling a pre-ordained destiny.  Few readers will fail to be moved by Tracey’s decline from bright and lively confidence about her future into a life just like all the other women in her moribund housing estate.

But the narrator’s upward trajectory is capricious to say the least.  Working for Aimee takes her round the world in a 24/7 sort of lifestyle, but it’s at the expense of her relationships, not just with her parents but with any potential lover as well.  When Aimee’s philanthropic whim takes her to a remote Gambian village to build a school for girls, the contrast between luxury and poverty is extreme but Smith’s character records the perspective of others musing on where the real wealth might lie. While certainly not idealising village life and its limitations, Smith shows a society that seems more comfortable with itself than the uneasy societies of the West.

The novel began to feel too long for itself as the focus shifted more to life on the celebrity trail with Aimee and the constant self-analysis of the tormented narrator wore a bit thin.  Having had her life sucked dry by Aimee, she eventually finds herself unwanted and ends up floundering around in an uncomfortably nostalgic support role for Tracey.  I didn’t find convincing her romantic envy that Tracey ‘belonged’ back where she began and she did not belong anywhere.  It was not just that Tracey ended up in a stereotypical single-mother straitjacket, it was that the means Tracey chose to express her sense of grievance were clear signals of the hopelessness of her situation.  Only someone totally out of synch with reality would have thought otherwise and the disconnect between a reader’s perspective and the narrator’s is carefully structured to reinforce the chasm.

Nostalgia for childhood friendships is a common theme in fiction, but rarely has it been so powerfully evoked as in this novel.  Nevertheless, I hope Swing Time isn’t Book One of a Ferrante-like series because I think these characters had exhausted their potential by the time they reached their thirties.

Author: Zadie Smith
Title: Swing Time
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (an imprint of Penguin Random House),2016
ISBN: 9780241247310
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Swing Time


  1. Sounds interesting, Lisa, but not enough for me to read it I think given my pile. Funnily the only Zadie Smith I’ve read it White teeth which I did enjoy a lot, and I have On beauty on my TBR but I feel I’m going to give it away. I have to reduce this glaring TBR to things I really think I will read I’ve decided.


    • Ooh, the big purge beckons! Did you see that Travellin’ Penguin has sold her Penguin collection?


      • No, I didn’t … wow, I’ve just been commenting with her but haven’t checked her latest post in the last couple of days.

        I wouldn’t say a “big purge” yet, but I need, for my mental state, to get some things under control. I have taken so much in over the last year from my aunt’s estate – we gave a huge amount away, and I talked around various family members into taking more things than they initially said they would, but in the end there was still a lot and the sentimental attachment to my aunt and my grandparents got to me. And I have stuff from my ma-in-law, and now my parents are downsizing. Wah! I am my own worst enemy.


        • I think that this kind of acquisition is an inevitable part of the process of packing up an estate. Disposing of, in whatever way, the treasured items of a loved one sharpens the loss and it’s all too common to want to hold on to bits of that life out of loyalty to things that symbolised it. But at the same time there can be a destructive sense that things are just that, things, and not the person, and therefore shedding things might make us feel better and will certainly make it easier for those that come after us and have to sort out our stuff. It’s a very difficult time…

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yes, it is, thanks Lisa. I’m getting my head around the fact that I’ll just “borrow” some of these things for a while and then move them on BUT one thing I’m going to do is USE them! If they get broken then so be it, eh?


            • Yes indeed. No point in hoarding things away…


  2. I read NW which was flawed but I still liked it. Passed this one over as I wasn’t entirely convinced I’d like it.


    • Well, I think this one is better than NW. It’s more fun and less aggrieved.


  3. I have heard a lot about Zadie Smith, but I have not yet read her. Which one would you recommend that I start with?


    • Ah well, I haven’t read White Teeth which is the one that launched her to international recognition, but of those I’ve read, I’d recommend this one.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Zadie Smith is one of my favourite contemporary authors, so I’ll probably read this once it comes out in paperback. Glad you liked it, albeit with a few reservations.


    • I think that others have been much more critical than me, but as I say, its flaws are not enough to prevent it being a very good novel.


  5. I had just finished reading Swing Time so I enjoyed your analysis Lisa. ‘Finished’ is a loose term because I got bored and skipped bits. Like other readers, I enjoyed ‘White Teeth’, probably because I come from London and could visualise the setting and appreciate the dynamics of all the various relationships. It seemed a much more effortless, flowing piece whereas ‘Swing Time’ often comes across as forced. It wonder whether we’re now going to have a spate of stories about friendships.. I was quite disappointed in the first of the Ferrante series and didn’t enjoy the style of writing which I thought was often clumsy and obscure. You’re right about the characters in ‘Swing Time’ exhausting their potential.


    • Hello Ros, happy new year! Great minds think alike on this one, then? I must get round to reading White Teeth!


  6. […] by Ali Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton), maybe… Swing Time by Zadie Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton), see my review The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (US) (Fleet), see my […]


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