Swing Time

by Zadie Smith

Hardcover, 2016

Call number




Penguin Press (2016), 464 pages


"An ambitious, exuberant new novel moving from North West London to West Africa, from the multi-award-winning author of White Teeth and On Beauty Two brown girls dream of being dancers--but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It's a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either. Tracey makes it to the chorus line but struggles with adult life, while her friend leaves the old neighborhood behind, traveling the world as an assistant to a famous singer, Aimee, observing close up how the one percent live. But when Aimee develops grand philanthropic ambitions, the story moves from London to West Africa, where diaspora tourists travel back in time to find their roots, young men risk their lives to escape into a different future, the women dance just like Tracey--the same twists, the same shakes--and the origins of a profound inequality are not a matter of distant history, but a present dance to the music of time"--… (more)

Media reviews

For its plot alone, Swing Time makes for truly marvellous reading. The narrator’s journey, from gritty estate to glittering globe and back again, is the juicy stuff of which film adaptations are made. And the music! If one were to make a playlist of the references, one would have a greatest hits
Show More
of black music: from Gambian drummers to Cab Calloway to Michael Jackson to Rakim. What makes Swing Time so extraordinary are the layers on which it operates; beneath its virtuosic plotting lies the keenest social commentary.
Show Less
1 more
Some of the narrator’s experiences in Africa with Aimee — combined with her efforts to understand shifting attitudes toward race in music and dance — are meant to raise larger questions about cultural appropriation, and the relationship between the privileged West and the developing world.
Show More
But these issues do not spring organically from this clumsy novel — a novel that showcases its author’s formidable talents in only half its pages, while bogging down the rest of the time in formulaic and predictable storytelling.
Show Less

Library's review

If you love dance, if you love Fred Astaire, if you love language, if you're ready for a conversation about race on the international level, then this book is for you. As usual, Zadie Smith writes with grace and loving kindness. (Brian)

User reviews

LibraryThing member wagner.sarah35
Zadie Smith's reputation is well-deserved and this book comes across with a strong plot woven with symbolism and managing to say something profound while still being true to very realistic characters. One moment that particularly resonated with me came towards the end of the novel, after the main
Show More
character has been unceremoniously let go from her job with a famous singer and in revenge she leaks information to the press. A friend's response: you are still very young. Having observed so many similar experiences, the true magic of this book and its writing is to feel that harmony between the book and the reader's own experiences. Few authors can craft such a complex and wide-reaching novel and I look forward to reading more of Zadie Smith.
Show Less
LibraryThing member charl08
"I remember there was always a girl with a secret, with something furtive and broken in her, and walking through the village with Aimee, entering people's homes, shaking their hands, accepting their food and drink, being hugged by their children, I often thought I saw her again, this girl who lives
Show More
everywhere and at all times in history, who is sweeping the yard or pouring out tea or carrying someone else's baby on her hip, and looking over at you with a secret she can't tell..."
I am a fan of Smith. A much savvier reading friend put me on to her through [On Beauty], the story of two families mixed histories. I wish she still wrote for the Guardian Reviews about other people's books. I thought the only problem with The Embassy of Cambodia was it was too short, and NW struck all sorts of memories about living in London. So that is a really longwinded way of saying that I was really pleased to get a Netgalley for this book.

Told exclusively from the perspective of one young woman, child of a white working class guy and a woman from Jamaica who is so determined to pull herself up she has all but forgotten her daughter is there too. [Swing Time] is a reference to the musicals which she watches with her friend Tracey, a gifted dancer. Those dances, the films, and their music, recur throughout the book as the narrator reflects on her family and 'race'. Tracey's dad left long ago, and her mum is not working, 'on benefits', with a 'Kilburn facelift'. Smith catches the differences between a certain kind of aspirational family and a kind of working class one: including the firm belief from parents that children can be somehow convinced that not having a particular doll is a *good* thing (fail).

The story leaps between the narrator's childhood and her employment as a PA to an Australian singer-actress: long famous, young despite her years, fiercely fit and capable of dropping people without looking back. The singer, Aimee, decides to fund a school in Senegal. Our narrator is the pathfinder, exploring the options for supporting a girls' school, spending long periods in the Senegalese village to make plans with a more experienced development worker. And here her job gets horribly complicated. Smith nods to the freight of a British -Jamaican in West Africa: she visits the slave castles, tries to imagine herself back in time. But in the village she is given oven chips instead of sharing the family rice, not permitted to work or help, and treated firmly as an outsider. It was here that I most loved this book. Smith puts her finger on so many development gremlins: subtly and smartly, not offering glib solutions just raising things to the light and saying 'this is really odd: what is going on here?' The bit at the end might sound far fetched but for the news of celebs and their 'African adventures'. Smith lets no one off lightly.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Narshkite
I am not entirely sure how I felt about this book. I loved elements of it. The relationship between the narrator and Tracy was so engaging. The pas de deux between the luminescent daring, possibly mentally ill dancing prodigy and the rather dull, flat footed self doubting and somewhat
Show More
undistinguished narrator is compelling as is the narrator's family relationship. The analysis of what blackness means (especially as that differs in England, the US, and an unidentified African nation) is fascinating, fresh, well told. But the book went a bit off the rails for me when Aimee became its primary driver. I feel like Zadie Smith tried to do too many things here and the book lost narrative focus as a result. A solid 3.5. I listened to the audio and the narrator was just superb.
Show Less
LibraryThing member joecanas
This is on a few "best of the year" lists, and I'm not sure why. It's a solid book, engrossing but occasionally long-winded and repetitive. Maybe it would have been more effective (and entertaining!) at 300 vs. 453 pages.
LibraryThing member bibliovermis
The main character of this book was literally a cipher—nameless, surrounded and buffeted by interesting and powerful female characters, while having little personality of her own. It was obviously intentional and it wasn't a bad thing for the story, which is mainly about her relationships with
Show More
these other characters, but it was difficult to care what happened to her specifically. The story was ostensibly about her coming of age, which makes me wonder: can it be a bildungsroman if the protagonist still hasn't come into their own by the end?
Show Less
LibraryThing member Beamis12
My first Zadie Smith and perhaps not the best one to have started with. The prose itself was fine but the story left me cold. It started promising enough, our narrator and her friend Tracy, two brown girls dream about being dancers. Our narrator, however, has flat feet and little talent for dance,
Show More
though she can sing. Tracy is the one with dance talent and her acceptance into a dance school with serve to start the separation of our two friends.

Forward to the future, our narrator is an assistant to popular dancer/singer, maybe a Brittany Spears type of entertainer who wants to build a girl's school in West Africa. We go back and forth in time, the past, the present in Africa. I should have loved this part but I found the characters flat, our narrator little changed from her youth, and the pacing incredibly slow. It is hard to overcome the fact that a secondary character, Tracy is so much more interesting, that the parts that include her are interesting, while the other characters just seem wooden.

Cultural identity is explored, old movies, dance but not as much as the title of the book leads is to believe. I found myself skimming, never a good thing, and at the end there were a few redeemable things. I will try to read another of her books, as I said the prose itself was worthy, just wished for more interesting aspects in the plot itself. There are many four and five star reviews for this book, keep in mind, this is just my reaction to it and may not be yours.

ARC from Netgalley.
Show Less
LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
Zadie Smith's new novel is about two girls who meet in a dance class. They're the only two brown girls in the class, but they become friends because of their shared love of dance and those old movies starring Fred Astaire. Tracey has talent, and eventually their paths diverge, as our narrator gives
Show More
up dance and moves on to university, then a job at a television studio and then as an assistant to a famous singer (a little too obviously modeled on Madonna). But their paths will eventually cross again.

Swing Time feels like two novels mashed together. The parts set during the narrator's childhood are fantastic. They feel true and they make for fascinating reading as both girls grow up. They are both interracial girls living in housing estates who share a common interest, but there the similarities stop. The narrator's mother is driven to better herself, to get a degree and to change the world and her father is loving and present. Tracey is being raised by a single mother who is harshly judged by the neighbors for first being lazy and then, after she finds a job, for leaving her daughter alone too much. But Tracey's house is freer and her mother more present in her life than the narrator's.

The other part of the book concerns a famous rock star who is interested in Africa and who sends the narrator there to keep an eye on the school she founds. The narrator's experiences in the unnamed African country don't quite reach the level of Westerner-touched-by-the-simple-lives-of-the-natives, but it's not comfortable reading. And the parts involving the Madonna-like Aimee were interesting, but fell short of the other part of the book.

Still, this is an interesting book by a gifted writer and worth the time spent with it.
Show Less
LibraryThing member lisapeet
I'm going to totally agree with my friend who says Smith still has her great novel in her but it hasn't been written yet. I enjoyed it all the way through (the total disappearance of all the "f" ligatures in my e-galley notwithstanding—so you KNOW I liked it if I could put up with that). But I
Show More
also felt there was something off with the timing, or plotting—super writing, great characters, a really good sense of place(s), and yet it somehow didn't congeal into a solid whole that made me think, Ah, so that's where she was going with it all. But I liked the book so thoroughly otherwise, it almost didn't matter. Which is actually pretty huge praise, when you think about it. I want to go back and reread White Teeth now.
Show Less
LibraryThing member LynnB
This is a story about identity, friendship, family relationships, race relationships, and more. I think Ms. Smith has tried to pack too much into this novel. At times, I was very engaged with it; at others, it seemed to be going nowhere -- or sending a message about an important issue rather than
Show More
furthering the story. Some of the characters were well developed; others seemed almost like parodies (Aimee; the mother). As one reviewer has said, I was more impressed with the writing itself than the story.

This is my fourth book by Zadie Smith. In my opinion, she has never equaled her excellent first book, White Teeth.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Othemts
An unnamed narrator, whose mother is of Jamaican descent and father is white English working class, tells her life story focusing on her relationships with three women. First, there's her mother who is a social activist and later an elected official with whom she feels alienated. Second, there's
Show More
Tracey, the only other nonwhite girl in her dance class who becomes her childhood friend (well, frenemy really) and is a much more talented dance. Finally, there's Aimee, an Australian pop superstar (I guess like Kylie Minogue, although Aimee seems more like Madonna) who hires the narrator as a personal assistant. The narrative moves back and forth in different periods of the narrator's life filling in details of these relationships. Smith takes a risk in making the narrator have no name but having characteristics that are autobiographical, and then makes the narrator so driftless and somewhat unlikable. One her traits is that she rarely is in control of her own life and lets these other women control her narrative, yet when she does take action is usually something petty.

A major plot point in the book is that Aimee builds a girls school in a West African village that the narrator plays a big role in returning to visit the village in what amounts to a parody of the sins of celebrity philanthropy. Similarly, the narrator's mother is a parody of the arrogant left-wing activist who only barely emerges as a flesh and blood character. Tracey is the most fully developed of the three characters as the narrator keeps trying to put her into boxes based on her low-income background, sexuality, and "wildness" but Tracey keeps defying all of that. I find that I enjoy Smith's writing style in this book but less interested in what Smith has to write about. The meandering quality of the narrative fits the aimlessness of the narrator but doesn't make it enjoyable to read.
Show Less
LibraryThing member lostinalibrary
In author Zadie Smith’s beautiful novel, Swing Time, two young girls meet in dance class and bond over their shared mixed race background and the proximity to their homes in a London public housing estate. The story is told by one of the girls whose name we never learn, appropriate since she
Show More
seems to live her life only as it reflects or is reflected by others. She is quickly ‘besotted’ by Tracey, the other girl, thanks to her having the same skin colour – they are the only mixed-race girls in the class - and the joy they both find in dancing. But Tracey has real talent while the narrator doesn’t. There is also the sense that, although Tracey is the object of the narrator’s loyalty and affection, she is much less invested in the relationship.

Unable to make dance her career, the narrator instead goes to university and later gets a job as assistant to Aimee, an international pop star. Even here, the narrator sees herself as more a confidant and friend than an employee despite being reminded of her status on several occasions. Although Aimee is white, she has adopted African children and has decided to build a school in a small village in Africa. Aimee, herself, is less interested in the actual building and running of the school as she is in the acclaim it brings her and later, the much younger man she takes as a somewhat reluctant lover. Instead, the narrator is sent to oversee things. Here she meets Hawa, a young woman who takes over the role that Tracey had filled in her youth albeit in a much more even relationship.

This is definitely a novel about women. Men tend to be on the periphery of the story. The narrator’s white father whom she adores is seen as inferior intellectually by her mother who sees herself as a community leader and who eventually tells him to leave; Tracey’s black father is rarely around; the village men have mostly left to seek better opportunities elsewhere; Fern has unrequited feelings for the narrator and eventually betrays her; Aimee’s young lover is in love with Hawa who sees him only as a friend; and Hawa becomes engaged to a man who never makes an actual appearance even after their marriage.

The title Swing Time is also interesting as it points to the fact that the story swings between two time periods: the narrator’s life as a child overshadowed by both her mother and Tracey and her years as Aimee’s assistant both in the west and in Africa as well as to the music and the films that she and Tracey love and the dance that they try to emulate.

If I had to sum up my feelings about this book in one word, it would have to be ‘brilliant’. It is beautifully written with lush prose and interesting characters who are complex and, for the most part, sympathetic. It explores race, class, heritage, privilege, and culture and how they help to form our identities and how those identities can be fluid eg the narrator is perceived as black in the west but white in Africa. This is not a fast book or an easy book but it is a wonderfully engrossing one and I recommend it highly.

Thanks to Edelweiss and Penguin Press for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review
Show Less
LibraryThing member jmchshannon
Swing Time is a novel I wanted to love but ended up being a novel I struggled to finish. This is not the fault of the language. The story is exquisitely written, with powerful and unambiguous prose. The problem lies with the characters and with how the story is told.

The constant switching of
Show More
narratives from the past, with its focus on Tracey, to the present, with its focus on Aimee, makes it difficult for you to become emotionally connected to either story. The switches are abrupt, and there is no minor cliffhanger to push you through each narrative to the next shift. They never fail to shock and unsettle you, even though you know they are coming, because the narrative itself has a rhythm that flows over you and fills you while you read. However, each narrative has a different rhythm, and it is unsettling to have to find that rhythm over and over again with each chapter.

At the same time, the narrator remains an unnamed bit player in the lives of these two larger-than-life people, even though the narrator is the one through which we see everything unfold. Even though she is intimately involved in every aspect of Aimee’s life, she is still an outsider looking in. As for her relationship with Tracey, there is nothing there that would indicate why they were such good friends throughout their childhood. In fact, one might debate the fact that they were not friends at all but more of a case of a minor obsession – all one-sided – between the narrator and Tracey. The same occurs later when she begins to work with Aimee. The feelings are never reciprocated by either woman, and the reader is left with the uncomfortable sensation of being privy to this failed attempt at friendships.

There is much in Swing Time about identity as well as a fairly biting commentary about celebrities who attempt to use their money and fame to promote their solution to a social injustice around the globe. Problems are so rarely solved by throwing money at them, and Ms. Smith does an excellent job reiterating this fact. Yet, the lack of connection with the narrator, Tracey, or Aimee makes the novel less powerful and more preachy. In addition, it remains difficult to adjust to the time shifts, leaving a reader constantly unsettled and racing to catch back up to the heartbeat of the storyline. While this may have been Ms. Smith’s intent, I found it distracting enough to make the novel fairly unenjoyable and difficult to read.
Show Less
LibraryThing member AdonisGuilfoyle
Ugh, not the best start to my New Year's resolution of reading more in 2017! I would have to concur with the other three star reviews here - Zadie Smith is a brilliant wordsmith, but when readers are left thinking, 'Wow, that was really well written!' over 'What a great story with relatable
Show More
characters!', something has obviously come unstuck. I loved the chapters in 1980s London, which were the most convincing, but 'Aimee' (a Madonna style popstar) and the section in Africa didn't move me at all. Also, I was barely conscious by the end, but that only stirred a passing 'Huh?' from me. The pacing was completely off, too - why the constant back and forth if nothing really came of Tracey's story? A disappointment, but I shall not be defeated.
Show Less
LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
I have read every fiction book done by Zadie Smith(5) and I would say that this one is her weakest. That being said, it is still a good book. Very well written with great prose and interesting insights. The basic story is told in the 1st person by an unnamed narrator. She is from NW London the
Show More
daughter of a white father and a Jamaican mother. Her friend Tracey is also from a mixed marriage and the 2 develop a friendship through dance. This relationship is an ongoing backdrop to the story that deals with their upbringings, different parental influences, and ultimately to their adult lives in their early 30's. The book goes back and forth between the present and past. It deals with our narrator being a personal assistant to a Madonna like pop star. This leads the story to West Africa. The book touches on so many issues and introduces many characters. Unfortunately a first person narrative is always tough because the you have to like the narrator and trust their view of the other characters. It doesn't totally work here. If you have read Zadie Smith before then I recommend this. If not, then start with "White Teeth"(her first novel) as your introduction to this very talented writer. I have enjoyed her for her world view that gets me outside my American perspective on things.
Show Less
LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
The rhythms of life, of a life, may pulse and flow, pivot and roll like a dance compelled by unheard music. For the unnamed narrator of Swing Time, life is always just a bit out of step. She is the child of mixed parents, like her best friend, Tracey. She feels the pull of the heritage that her
Show More
relentless Jamaican-born mother pursues through her self-directed education. (Her mother eventually finishes school, completes a part-time university degree, and then moves into local and finally national politics.) But she also knows that it is her father’s care and kindness, however weak he may be, that cushions her bumping path through childhood. It’s what her friend Tracey lacks. Still, Tracey is the better dancer.

The story moves easily between the childhood of the two girls and the later life of the narrator as she completes a media degree, joins the staff of the nascent British YTV, and later steps into the role of personal assistant (one of four) to Aimee, an international pop star and perpetual force in the celebrity culture. It is through the latter association, in one Aimee’s fits of generous enthusiasm, that the focus shifts to a small west-African village where Aimee is determined to build a school for girls. There is plenty of opportunity for misunderstanding and, at least for some, growth. Here our narrator slowly develops the moral and spiritual resources to dance like a native. Of course, merely getting in step with life won’t necessarily see you through. But it may prompt the crisis that pushes you onto the next part of your life, whatever that might involve.

The writing here is compelling, soulful and insightful in equal measure. Smith’s narrative voice never becomes overly familiar. The reader always feels like there is more to her. And the world around her, whether that be north London, New York, or west-Africa, is always being freshly revealed. Even characters who are problematic, such as Tracey or Lamin, or Aimee herself, are always a step beyond easy summary, or summary dismissal. I felt like I was fully immersed in the narrator’s life, even when that life was not such a comfortable place to reside. It is a lovely achievement for any writer.

Certainly recommended.
Show Less
LibraryThing member pgchuis
The unnamed narrator grows up in London with a white father and a black mother and is friends with Tracey, who has a black (mostly absent) father and a white mother. The narrator grows apart from and eventually falls out completely with Tracey and goes on to work as a personal assistant to Aimee
Show More
(who seemed to be rather like Madonna) for ten years or so. Towards the end the narrator is heavily involved in a girls' school Aimee has set up in West Africa.

There are interesting points and asides about race and class and money and its power to destroy/do good. There are many less interesting (to me) sections on dance and musicals and different forms of music. I found it an easy and engrossing read, but it suffered from having an unattractive, passive, self-centred, insensitive narrator. Time and again the narrator admits that events caught her unaware or blind sided her, but this became tiresome and infuriating. She had no affection for anyone and no real loyalty either. I never understood why she stayed with Aimee, nor why (as an adult) she managed to cut herself off so completely from her mother.

The sections set in Africa benefitted from the more sensitive and long-term perspective brought by Fernando, but I didn't quite believe in the narrator's visits there - was she really welcome at the compound? She didn't speak the language - wasn't she just a burden? Would Lamin really have acted as he did?

Tracey was a much more coherent character, but the narrator was only periodically and peripherally involved with Tracey as an adult and (of course) remarkably uninterested in exactly what was going on with her. I wanted to know more about Tracey. Also, what was the story with the narrator's father's other family?
Show Less
LibraryThing member Perednia
A long, rambling book about women and their roles as seen through the lenses of dance, celebrity and diaspora. Some lovely moments and interesting characters.
LibraryThing member ozzer
Smith tackles many themes in SWING TIME. A partial list might include security vs. materialism, how events shape us and the challenges of overcoming them, the importance of friendship and how it can turn toxic, race and class in all their manifestations, the meaning of tribe, love vs. loathing, the
Show More
importance of music and dance in life fulfillment, the debilitating effect of envy, how roots can define us, and globalization as it relates to cultural identity. The unifying motif for all of this seems to be how people struggle (and often fail) to achieve identity. As the title suggests, the narrative swings between time periods and the characters swing between what ought to be and what is. Smith deftly uses dance as a unifying metaphor. Her unnamed narrator (It is tempting to view her as Smith) sees dance as universal, transcending much of life’s struggles. “To me a dancer was a man from nowhere, without parents or siblings, without a nation or people, without obligations of any kind, and this was exactly the quality I loved.”

The narrator reminisces about her life after recently losing her job. Her childhood was spent as a poor, mixed race inhabitant of public housing in Northwest London, while most of her adulthood was devoted to globetrotting with her celebrity employer, but with a particular focus in a West African Village where her sponsor founds a school for girls. The narrator concludes that she is a passive observer who was influenced by much stronger women. “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.” She shadows four such women: a childhood friend (Tracey); her mother; the celebrity (Aimee); and Hawa, an African village teacher. Yet each relationship fails in its own way. Tracey is everything the narrator wanted to be as a child: graceful, confident, and daring. Tracey clings to a dream of stardom as a dancer, but eventually ends up back where she started. The narrator’s mother is an autodidact who refuses to be defined by her class and race—she is a black émigré from Jamaica. She aspires to a career in politics and eventually succeeds. Aimee is a pop star in the Madonna mold, who rose from modest circumstances in Bendigo, Australia. In many respects Aimee is a successful version of Tracey. She is impulsive, highly talented, charismatic and confident. She is “a kind of child, accustomed to having every desire sated, every action praised, every idea celebrated.” Hawa also has a strong woman but is totally satisfied with her life teaching English to village children in remote West Africa. From her, the narrator comes to realize that, despite being comfortable in Africa among other blacks, she will always be an outsider there. Ultimately, she comes to learn that her African friends think of her as white. At one point, Hawa mistakenly tells her, "Even though you are a white girl, you dance like you are a black!"

As with “White Teeth”, SWING TIME is a rich and absorbing read, filled with Smith’s trademark worldview and humorous observations on pop culture. The narrative poses multiple existential questions, but maintains focus on the story and its main themes. Smith skillfully uses imagery to make subtle points (e.g., The African bird, the sankofa, looks back over its own body in much the same way that the narrator does.) If the book has shortcomings, these might be a plot that is too complex, a protagonist who is too passive and a narrative that is too eclectic. These often leave one with the sense that the novel lacks a compelling point of view. Yet in the final analysis, it is a wonderful read.
Show Less
LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
Swing Time-Zadie Smith, author, Pippa Bennett-Warner, narrator
The novel is set between London, England and a community in West Africa. The main character, who remains unnamed throughout the novel, is our narrator. Beginning when she is seven years old, she describes her attraction to and budding
Show More
friendship with, another light-skinned girl of the same brown hue. Both girls dreamt of becoming famous dancers, and both were enamored with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and many other famous entertainment figures. As the narrator reflects back and forth over the course of her life for a period of about 25 years, we learn that each child followed their own paths, which soon began to diverge further and further apart from each other. In spite of their similarities, it was their differences which caused the angst and jealousy that divided them, like one having a two-parent family and one being more talented. Only a spark of their friendship remained alive as years passed.
Both girls lived in public housing; both attended dance class. Our narrator’s Jamaican mother viewed dreams of a career in the theater as a frivolous ambition, and she encouraged her daughter to study harder to achieve greater intellectual success and give up on a dance career. Tracey’s mom encouraged her daughter’s dreams of a career in the entertainment world. Eventually, Tracey’s career was cut short by the birth of her many children, and our narrator lives vicariously, spending her time working for Aimee, a famous singer/entertainer. She is her gopher. Traveling with Aimee, and attending to her every need, means she was no better than a maid, as far as her mom was concerned, and had, therefore, not improved her life in any meaningful way.
The family background of each girl was completely different. Our narrator lived in a home with a father and a mother present in her early years. Her white father was a postman. Her mother was educated and ambitious. She sought an education and a career as a community activist, trying to help others who were less fortunate, although she herself was not well off either. Her career flourished, and she was elected to serve in Parliament. She held herself above others and was sometimes resented. She considered herself more sophisticated, spoke well and dressed conservatively, as opposed to Tracey’s white mom who was of a lower class and never achieved anything but landing on the public dole. She was a flashier dresser with a coarse tongue. Tracey’s father was MIA.
Our narrator often resented her mother and her advice, and over the years their relationship suffered. Actually, our narrator did not make many permanent, close relationships with anyone, but rather she seemed to sabotage the relationships that got too close, often with inappropriate behavior or comments.
Aimee, her employer, was a woman worshipped by sycophants who forgave her mistakes and unethical, amoral behavior because she was rich and famous. When she attempted to help the Africans in a small and backward community by setting up a school, she often provided useless gifts. For instance, she sent TV’s, but they had no electricity; she sent toilets, but they had no plumbing, she provided computers before they had the ability to use or charge them. As our narrator traveled to Africa to help her boss in this endeavor, she hoped to get closer to her own identity, but she did not. She continued to cater to and live through Aimee, never developing her own life fully. She would one day become the victim of Aimee’s cruelty and discover that all races and classes have the capacity to hurt each other without a backward glance.
Neither Tracey nor our narrator achieved very much in the 25 years that were reviewed by her. Tracey was caught in the downward spiral of poverty because of the choice she made to have children prematurely. She took drugs and engaged in reckless sex. Her dreams of a dance career ended. Our narrator’s mom believed Tracey was unstable and was responsible for her own poverty and lack of success, and she then became the victim of Tracey’s cruelty, painfully discovering that no good deed goes unpunished.
Throughout the book race, wealth, education and, on occasion, even religion, were used as a means to compare and contrast the achievements some attained and the choices some made. Our narrator’s mother wanted to rise above race, to prove to the world that she could be successful, but even she had to face the failure of her efforts in the end. How many lasting relationships had she made? Did any of these characters have any real relationships that were lasting and true?
The book didn’t feel hopeful. Most of the tales were of some kind of failure. The narrator never found her true self or purpose. Her mother was often resented and unsung, and her work in Parliament went largely unnoticed. Aimee, the famous entertainer, was not really able to accomplish her goal to help the African community because her efforts were ill informed. While she decided to build a school for girls, she aroused the resentment of the boys who were now being neglected and the confusion of the general population regarding her gifts. Perhaps well intentioned, she was still misguided and her goals were unrealistic.
In the novel, the author name drops many famous people uniting the fictional with the real world. The single common thread pulling the story together is music. As the voices and bodies swing in time to the music, so does the story swing in many different directions illustrating the sharp differences that exist in society for class, race and status. There is light humor injected into the story, but it is not a funny story at all since it shines a light on how our perceptions influence our conclusions, often incorrectly. The book highlights the conflicts that people of color face among their own, and in the greater world among strangers. The effects of elitism, racial prejudices, wealth and power are illustrated for all walks of life. Jealousy and greed are pervasive in society, everywhere. In one group, certain bad behavior may be lionized, while in another group that same behavior will be condemned. In one group, certain acts are more easily forgiven because of the power of money and the influence of fame. It gives truth to the theory that it is not what you know, but who you know.
By contrasting the world of a backward community in Africa with that of a backward community in England, the reader’s eyes are opened. In order to escape the life they have, some will believe anything that portends to make things better for them; they are easily radicalized. They will follow a life that is not always good, but it is a life that provides them with an exit from their intolerable existence. Often, superstition, blind faith and a lack of education influence someone to make poor choices. Old ways simply conflict with the new. The poor accuse everyone of not understanding their problems while they do not understand their own responsibility for their plight; they accuse others of not doing enough for them even though they are not doing enough for themselves and, therefore, perpetuate their problems. The circle of defeat and failure continues downward because it is unbroken. Resentment, hopelessness and anger thrive.
I found an odd comparison between Tracey and Aimee which would be an interesting topic of discussion in a book group. Both women loved children, but one was looked down upon and condemned for her choice to have them out of wedlock and with no visible means of support, while the other was lionized for her choice to adopt a child although she never planned to raise the child herself, but had the means to hire help to be the surrogate. Fame and wealth spoke truth to power, and poverty and lack of distinction spoke truth to shame.
The narrator told the story in anecdotal bits which were sometimes confusing in the audio. I suggest reading the print version of the book. I was a bit put off by the author’s preoccupation with sex in almost every sketch related by the narrator.
The ultimate message of the book, for me, was that “People are not poor because they made bad choices, they made bad choices because they were poor”
Show Less
LibraryThing member Smits
I liked parts of this book. Lots of parts , however, I found preachy. long winded. The parent - child dynamic is a very strong theme in this novel yet if left me cold.
Swing Time is a novel I wanted to love but ended up being a novel I struggled to finish. This is not the fault of the language. The
Show More
story is exquisitely written, with powerful and unambiguous prose. The problem lies with the characters and with how the story is told.
Show Less
LibraryThing member sleahey
A novel about friendship and family, this first person narration moves back and forth in time, tracing her childhood relationships with her best friend and her parents, and her adult career and relationships as a personal assistant to an Australian superstar. Set primarily in England and West
Show More
Africa, the novel explores issues of race, prejudice, and the challenges of assisting third world countries. Somehow the main character's responses to various betrayals--both her own and others'-- seemed flat to me. Perhaps that was the point: that her upbringing did not equip her to handle her adult lifestyle, leaving her as a somewhat lost soul. This is hardly a page-turner, but the pace seemed meandering enough to me that I was impatient to reach the end.
Show Less
LibraryThing member lilibrarian
Two little mixed race girls in London dream of becoming dancers. One makes it to the chorus line, but has issues with adult responsibilities. The other becomes assistant to a famous performer, possibly losing herself in the process. When the performer decides to open a school in Africa, she is
Show More
introduced to a new world, new people with different lives and a dose of reality.
Show Less
LibraryThing member St.CroixSue
This is a story of the friendship of two girls growing up in public housing in Northwest London who connect in a dance class (the only brown girls in the class) at age 7. The book zig zags through the decades of their relationship, from closeness to being estranged and from London to Africa. Lovely
Show More
Show Less
LibraryThing member novelcommentary
I have long admired Zadie Smith's writing. Her early on accomplishment, White Teeth, remains one of my favorite novels. With Swing Time, she narratives from a first person, never-named character, who grows up in London and develops a lifelong relationship with a like skinned girl named Tracey.
Show More
Their bond over dancing and being biracial is stronger than the apparent differences of where they live. The narrator's mom is pursuing her education to further herself and sees Tracey as a bad influence for her daughter. Tracey however is the gifted dancer of the two and goes on to perform to some degree of notoriety. As the girls get older we see the narrator graduate college and move on to become an assistant to a Madonna-like character; she seems to have a shadow life, there only to make another's more comfortable.
"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.” Her position includes the expeditions of West Africa to help the start of a new school for the local girls, a school funded by the famous performer. Washington Post reviewer, Ron Charles point s out, "She is our Nick Carraway, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of wasted life. She’s burdened with superior insight that grants her nothing but a sharp sense of her own irrelevance — she never even tells us her name."
It's tough to match the splendor that was found in White Teeth, but I enjoyed the writing. Though I didn't love the book, it's worth reading anything by such a talented author.
Show Less
LibraryThing member bookfest
I wondered why the title was Swing Time - it swings in time between the main character's childhood and her present as a young woman, with her childhood friend Tracey weaving between the two. Zadie Smith portrays the two young girls with remarkable depth. You know these girls! Both interracial, they
Show More
grow up in low-income housing in the less glamorous realms of London. The young Tracey is indomitable, calling all the shots in the friendship. The protagonist seems to have little will of her own -- she remains unnamed throughout the book and slides, somewhat by chance, into a position as a personal assistant to an international rock star, who, like Tracey, calls all the shots. The secondary characters are well developed, not only Tracy, but the mother, the rock star, Aimee, and several of the minor characters in the African village where Aimee decides to build a school.
In many ways this is a political and social commentary, although it is not polemic. It delves into life for the lower-classes, for the interracial, local politics and the implications of the famous toying with the lives of those in third-world countries.
Totally engaging!
Show Less




1594203989 / 9781594203985
Page: 0.2478 seconds