Swing Time

Zadie Smith

Swing Time
Penguin Books Ltd
United Kingdom
17 July 2017

Swing Time

Zadie Smith

Dazzlingly energetic and deeply human, Swing Time is a story about friendship and music and true identity, how they shape us and how we can survive them. Moving from north-west London to West Africa, it is an exuberant dance to the music of time.

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…


Within the first few pages of Swing Time I was affected, again, by Zadie Smith’s ability to make universal truths personal. The story is a complete portrait of our time – our complex relationships with social media, parents, race, politics and motivations are all exposed.

Told by an unnamed narrator, a female of Jamaican decent, the story centres on the complicated friendship of two women throughout their childhood and middle age in the housing estates of London. By dividing the fortunes of these two women, Smith has been able to define a generation that is left bereft and wanting. In her early adulthood, the narrator becomes a personal assistant to a (white) world-famous entertainer who dabbles in philanthropy in an African country. Through her decade long work with this star, the narrator is able to leave her upbringing and her friendship with her childhood friend, a talented dancer. It is here that the novel becomes its own anthropological study. Smith has used this novel, as well we all should, to explore the question that surely rankles us all: how are we to be good in a world full of consumerism and self-serving hubris?

Swing Time has its own rhythm and flow, twisting periods of time around as the narrator comes to terms with what is important and what has been lost. Smith’s writing is beautiful and multifaceted with meaning. This is an important novel and, for me, as breathtaking and emotionally moving as White Teeth. This is my book of the year.

Chris Gordon

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