Review: ‘Swing Time’ by Zadie Smith

Back to University reading lists! I’ve looked forward to this book all term. My previous exposure to Zadie Smith was all before undergrad – I read and likely didn’t comprehend a lot of a school library copy of White Teeth, and bought On Beauty from a charity shop when I was seventeen. My memories of both books are a bit fuzzy, but I’m really keen to revisit them given how much I enjoyed this book.

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Swing Time follows the ups and downs of friendship between two mixed race London girls who meet in dance class – an unnamed narrator and Tracey, from neighbouring Willesden blocks of flats. As an adult, the narrator gets a job as assistant to mega-superstar Aimee and travels the world, spending time in a West African country where her boss is building a school.

In the responses I’ve heard, there seems to be a consensus that the strongest sections of this book are the childhood ones, and I think I concur with that. Smith is brilliant at evoking the atmosphere of London life, something I’ve heard a lot about, but I was pleased to find that this is equally accessible to those who know London and those (like me) who have barely been there. The sections in Gambia are also well drawn, but very much by an outsider, and it was this I found especially interesting. The narrator goes to Africa as a girl with a black mother and white father – in some way, she feels she has a connection to this other place, but to the people there she is white, and very much an outsider. The relationships she builds are superficial, being in their second language.

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The narrator was a very interesting character. Often she is willing to fade into the background and to be more observer than participant, but she has occasional moments of agency and decisiveness which stand out. Crucially for me, she is not always likeable. Often I felt that she had not really grown up – while she adapted to fit the job she was doing, in many ways she remained very young.

The critical thing though is always her friendship with Tracey, and there were so many moments I recognised. Strange, awkward interactions from childhood which I think only happen between children are very keenly observed. For instance, the sorts of lies that children will tell each other, and let each other get away with. I recognised between the narrator and Tracey something which fascinated me as a child: the confidence some people gain very young to take charge, and to stand up to adults, while others very automatically defer to a grown up’s authority. The dynamics of intense childhood relationships are some of the best I’ve come across in fiction.

There are so many tensions drawn which this novel draws out incredibly gently that it’s impossible to touch on them all. It absolutely makes me want to revisit Smith’s other novels, and while it hasn’t quite made it to my favourites list, I did hugely enjoy it.

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