Book review: Swing Time by Zadie Smith

At the start of the year, I wanted to diversify my reading. I’m an obsessive reader who gets into readings ruts and will re-read from the same genre until the end of time. I know this about myself, so I wanted to challenge my own cliches and broaden my reading horizon.

A few authors – who I’ve never read before – sprang to mind. One such author was Zadie Smith. I simply adore contemporary fiction and probably read way too much of the genre. But I wanted to read an author’s back catalogue who my friends and other bookworms have already lapped up. Enter: Swing Time.


Swing Time is set in London, New York and West Africa. The novel itself follows the lives of two brown girls from Willesden who dream of being dancers. However, only one of them has the talent to truly make it on stage: Tracey. While our other unamed narrator finds herself moving further than she could have ever imagined.

The novel is really story of these characters and their friendship. At the start they are drawn together by the colour of their skin (they’re the only brown girls at their dance school) and it’s this passion for dance that the two bond over. We see their childhood develop through the lens of the unamed narrator. Tracey is boisterous, sexual and dominant in the friendship from a very young age. While the other narrator, in my opinion, is much more reserved.

As they grow into teens, their lives take different paths and they see less and less of each other. Our narrator studies Tracey’s life from afar. At times jealous of Tracey’s dancing on stage, while at other stages she’s simply curious. Then as they move into their adult lives, the narrator’s watching becomes less physical and more virtual. She refreshes Tracey’s Facebook page and follows her profile on online forums. As our narrator begins to age, there’s a distinct feeling that her social life is stuck in the past with a young Tracey on their housing estates.

That being said, our protagonist is drawn to confident, strong and talkative women. First there is her mother. While she isn’t very maternal, in the loving and hugging sense, she’s constantly on the picket line protesting, gaining qualifications and voicing her opinions. Her dominant nature is the first that our narrator encounters. Then, there’s Tracey. Then, comes along her employer, the international pop superstar Aimee. Aimee is another whirlwind in herself. She finds listening to others difficult and shuns those who attempt to confront her and any deluded decision making. Finally, there is Hawa. She’s less in your face than the others, but she is talkative and chatty. These four women are all happy with how their life has panned out. Growth in a wider sense doesn’t come naturally to any of them. Their interests are the same as their childhood selves and for some don’t their ambitions extend beyond geographical boundaries or any wealth.

At one time or another, these relationships must come to an end. And it’s towards the end of a novel where the core theme of the book reaches a triumphant crescendo. Friendship. A friendship that spans decades, moves across time zones, jobs and judgements. Family is who you chose for our characters, it’s not just genetics. It’s this notion that Smith articulates beautifully with her lengthy passages of prose.

If you want a novel with a deliciously rich writing style, features music and films that will leave you longing for a film adaption with a great score, and will make you question your own friendships, then pick up Swing Time. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

4 thoughts on “Book review: Swing Time by Zadie Smith

  1. Fantastic review! You’ve got me adding this book to my to-read list. You’re an excellent writer – I’m looking forward to reading more of your stuff! 🙂


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