Swing Time by Zadie Smith

The reviews for Zadie Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time, have been glowing. Which is a good thing, because: glowing, but a bad thing, because: expectations.

My expectations were high. And perhaps nudged even a little higher thanks to The Embassy of Cambodia, which is still fresh in my mind.

Swing Time tells the story of two biracial girls growing up in the eighties in neighbouring housing estates in London. The pair meet at a dance class run in the local hall – the unnamed narrator is intelligent but self-doubting, while the other girl, Tracey, is confident, talented and self-destructive.

“There were many other girls present but for obvious reasons we noticed each other, the similarities and the differences, as girls will.”

The story follows the girls to adulthood, when the narrator becomes an assistant to an Australian pop star named Aimee and travels the world, assisting Aimee with her various projects, including establishing a school for girls in Gambia.

Where Embassy and it’s mere 70 pages, felt like a big novel on account of Smith’s stupendous analogies and the layers of meaning embedded in even the simplest of scenes, Swing Time is the opposite – it’s a solid novel (460+ pages) and yet, the bigger themes felt diluted, lost in the shifting time-zones and distorted by the narrator, whose opinion and reaction to particular events lacked the gutsiness I expect from Smith’s heroines.

The central theme is change, with a number of the main characters transforming themselves (perhaps the most compelling was the narrator’s mother, who began as an activist without a degree but finishes as a highly educated member of the British government).  Coupled with Smith’s numerous references to dance (from Astaire and Jeni LeGon to Michael Jackson) and the Golden Age of Hollywood, there was the opportunity for a story of cinematic proportions. And yet, it didn’t quite hit the high note I had hoped for.

“We thought we were products of a particular moment, because as well as our old musicals we liked things like Ghostbusters and Dallas and lollipop flutes.”

Swing Time lacked the pithiness of Smith’s previous work. The chapters focused on the narrator’s childhood were by far the best and Smith’s attention to detail captures the truthfulness of eight-year-old girls perfectly –

“…and in the dialogue Tracey gave me to say I sometimes heard odd, discomfiting echoes of her own home life, or else of the many soaps she watched, I couldn’t be sure.
‘Your turn. Say: You slag – she ain’t even my kid! Is it my fault she pisses ‘erself?’ Go on, your turn!'”

In contrast, the sections set in Gambia were out-of-step, with Smith ramming in references to demonstrate that wealth and success are all relative, as well as commentary on globalisation, identity and cultural appropriation.

3.5/5 On reflection, much to admire but not the immersive experience I had hoped for.

I received my copy of Swing Time from the publisher, Penguin Books UK, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Oh my goodness, I’d blocked out Findus Crispy Pancakes until I read this –

“…quite often the whole, misguided experiment (to make vegetarian lasagne, to do ‘something’ with okra) became so torturous for everybody that she would manufacture a row and storm off, shouting. We would end up eating Findus Crispy Pancakes again. Round Tracey’s, things were simpler: you began with the clear intention of making Findus Crispy Pancakes or pizza (from frozen) or sausages and chips, and it was all delicious and no one shouted about it.”

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23 responses

    • ‘Admirable’ is the perfect descriptor.

      Apart from Embassy, I haven’t read anything by her for a long time (I missed NW) so in one way I didn’t have any expectations (although I do recall an excellent sense of place in her books)… EXCEPT that Embassy was a brilliant piece of writing – challenged so many important social issues in a brief story. It was incredibly thought-provoking whereas Swing Time, because it was much longer, diluted focus (on many of the same issues covered in Embassy).

  1. That’s an interesting comparison with The Embassy of Cambodia. Perhaps Smith is better when keeping things short, more disciplined? Previous novels by her have fallen short of expectations for me – I think ‘admirable rather than immersive’ puts it very well.

    • It wasn’t so much ‘love or hate’ the book in its entirety, it was sections. The childhood parts were really, really good but the narrator as an adult fell flat. Overall, glad I read it but not as good as her other books.

  2. *snap* I have just reviewed this book too. I liked it much more than you did – I liked the childhood best too, and had a few reservations about the rest of it, but overall it’s the best of her books IMO.
    But I haven’t read White Teeth. Have you?

    • I have read White Teeth and On Beauty (but so many years ago that the detail is forgotten) – do recall that I enjoyed both.

      I enjoyed this but it didn’t wow me – given that so many people had it as their best book this year, I was expecting a lot.

      The bits that let it down IMO – some of The Gambia stuff felt contrived. And the ‘romance’ elements all seemed cold – got the impression that the narrator never felt passion (infatuation, obligation yes) which meant that the part with L toward the end seemed so unlikely.

  3. I liked the book very much—but the ending was too ambiguous for me. I like the way “White Teeth” ended with a clear resolution for all the major characters. This book? Who knows what will happen. Nonetheless, I do admire Smith’s writing very much.

    • I wasn’t mad on the ending either and it was only two days after I had finished that I suddenly remembered the intriguing beginning (which was the ending used as a hook to ‘look back’). Made me think that the story did go on for too long given that I had already forgotten the significance of the start! Usually with books structured that way, you’re busting to close the narrative arc!

      • I went back to look at the beginning after I had finished the book and it offered no real illumination–or rather it suggested a large set of possibilities, none of which seemed more likely than others.

      • Interesting. Ordinarily one of those beginnings with a hook is at the forefront of my mind while reading but I really did forget it with this book.

  4. I haven’t had dinner yet and those Crispy Pancakes look to die for. haha! I’ve been meaning to read something of Zadie’s for so long but it just hasn’t happened yet. I think On Beauty is somewhere around her gathering dust.

    • The Findus Crispy Pancake didn’t have a long life in Australia but I do remember eating a ham and cheese one in the eighties. That said, maybe they do still exist in the freezer section somewhere – will have a look next time at the supermarket!

      I enjoyed On Beauty and White Teeth but it was so long ago that the detail has been forgotten. If you really want to tick Smith off the list, read her short story Embassy of Cambodia (there’s a link to it online in my review). It really is the best of her writing.

  5. I agree that expectations can be a bother. I recently made two attempts to read Swing Time and just couldn’t carry on. Thankfully my copy was a library copy, so I don’t feel pressured to read it just now. I will give it another try later.

  6. I’ve not read Zadie Smith since On Beauty – it was a bit of a let down for me after loving White Teeth. But I bought this recently on strength of some great reviews – since then the stuff I’ve read is more mixed. And spookily, at a post-family dinner yesterday we had a debate about the merits of Findus Crispy Pancakes so seems Fate drawing me to this!

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