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Swing Time: A Novel Paperback – September 5, 2017
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“A sweeping meditation on art, race, and identity that may be [Smith’s] most ambitious work yet.” —Esquire
A New York Times bestseller • Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction • Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize
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.
Zadie Smith's newest book, Grand Union, published in 2019.
"Buried" by Kendra Elliot
Buried is the third book in Bone Secrets, the multimillion-copy bestselling series.| Learn more
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“A dance itself, syncopated, unexpected, and vital . . . Swing Time may not parse easily and fits no mold, but it is uncommonly full of life.” —Claire Messud, The New York Review of Books
“A multilayered tour-de-force . . . Smith burnishes her place in the literary firmament with her fifth novel . . . The work is so absorbing that a reader might flip it open randomly and be immediately caught up. Its precision is thrilling even as it grows into a book-length meditation on cultural appropriation, played out on a celebrity-besotted global stage . . . Smith’s novels are set in motion by character, complex portraits that are revelatory of race and class.” —Karen Long, Los Angeles Times
“Brilliant . . . With Swing Time, Zadie Smith identifies the impossible contradiction all adults are asked to maintain—be true to yourself, and still contain multitudes; be proud of your heritage, but don't be defined by it. She frays the cords that keep us tied to our ideas of who we are, to our careful self-mythologies. Some writers name, organize, and contain; Smith lets contradictions bloom, in all their frightening, uneasy splendor.” —Annalisa Quinn, NPR.org
“Smith’s most affecting novel in a decade, one that brings a piercing focus to her favorite theme: the struggle to weave disparate threads of experience into a coherent story of a self . . . As the book progresses, she interleaves chapters set in the present with ones that deal with memories of college, of home, of Tracey. It is a graceful technique, this metronomic swinging back and forth in time . . . The novel’s structure feels true to the effect of memory, the way we use the past as ballast for the present. And it feels true, too, to the mutable structure of identity, that complex, composite ‘we,’ liable to shift and break and reshape itself as we recall certain pieces of our earlier lives and suppress others.” —Alexandra Schwartz, The New Yorker
“Every once in a while, a novel reminds us of why we still need them. Building upon the promise of White Teeth, written almost two decades ago, Zadie Smith’s Swing Time boldly reimagines the classically English preoccupation with class and status for a new era—in which race, gender, and the strange distortions of contemporary celebrity meet on a global stage . . . No detail feels extraneous, least of all the book’s resonant motif, the sankofa bird, with its backward-arching neck—suggestive less of a dancer than of an author, looking to her origins to understand the path ahead.” —Megan O’Grady, Vogue
“[Smith] revisits familiar themes from her previous books—multicultural society, family, race, identity—but her convictions are stronger and her scope wider . . . A powerful story of lives marred by secrets, unfulfilled potential and the unjustness of the world. But she has interwoven it with another beautiful story of the dances people do to rise above it all.” —The Economist
“As soulful as it is crafty.” —Lena Dunham, Lenny
“Wise and illuminating . . . Smith is a master stylist, delivering revelatory sentences in prose that never once veers into showiness.” —USA Today
“Culturally rich, globally aware and politically sharp . . . One sentence of Zadie Smith can entertain you for several minutes . . . Both a stunning writer on the sentence level and a cunning, trap-setting, theme-braiding storyteller, with Swing Time Zadie Smith has written one of her very best books.” —Newsday
“A brimming love of humanity in all its mad and perplexing forms animates [Smith’s] fiction, along with a lifelong infatuation with the city of London . . . Swing Time can rightly be called a return to the kind of fiction Smith does best . . . Sparkling.” —Laura Miller, Slate
“Smith’s thrilling cultural insights never overshadow the wholeness of her characters, who are so keenly observed that one feels witness to their lives.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“Absorbing . . . Smith tackles meaty subjects—including friendship and race—with her customary insight and grace.” —People
“Smith delivers a page-turner that’s also beautifully written (a rare combo), but best of all, she doesn’t sidestep the painful stuff.” —Glamour, “November’s Must Read”
“A sweeping meditation on art, race, and identity that may be [Smith’s] most ambitious work yet.” —Esquire
“Transfixing, wide-ranging (from continents to emotions to footwork).” —Marie Claire
“A thoughtful tale of two childhood BFFs whose shared passion for dance takes them on wildly divergent life paths.” —Cosmopolitan
“[Swing Time] makes a remarkable leap in technique. Smith has become increasingly adept at combining social comedy and more existential concerns—manners and morals—through the flexibility of her voice, layering irony on feeling and vice versa. In a culture that often reduces identity politics to a kind of personal branding, Smith works the same questions into a far deeper (and more truly political) consideration of what it takes to form a self . . . Swing Time’s great achievement is its full-throated and embodied account of the tension between personal potential and what is actually possible.” —The New Republic
“Vibrant . . . [An] agile, propulsive coming-of-age novel . . . Smith’s humor is both sharp and sly as she skewers various targets, including humorless, petty social activists and celebrity culture’s inflated sense of importance.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Splendid . . . The narrator’s wry voice, mostly sharply self-aware but occasionally painfully not so, is just one of the strengths of Swing Time . . . Filled with energy and grace.” —Tampa Bay Times
“Zadie Smith constantly amazes us with the dexterity of her voice—or better yet, voices…In her latest offering, Smith returns to North West London with new characters and an uncanny ability to explore the complex nature of racism and its impact on individuals and the community.” —Essence
“Remarkable . . . Smith is far too skilled and entertaining a storyteller to deliver lectures, but race and class linger subtly underneath all the events unfolding in Swing Time . . . [A] rich, compelling novel.” —Dallas Morning News
“In each subsequent work [since White Teeth, Smith] has ever more subtly charted the fraught territory where individual experience negotiates social norms. In Swing Time, her first novel in the first person, the transaction becomes more focused and personal, and its cost to the individual powerfully and poignantly clear.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“In her ability to capture the ferocity and fragility of such [childhood] relationships, Smith resembles Elena Ferrante.” —Boston Globe
“Not just a friendship but our whole mad, unjust world comes under Smith’s beautifully precise scrutiny.” —New York Magazine
“The narrator's unaffected voice masks the structural complexity of this novel, and its density. Every scene, every attribute pays off.” —TIME Magazine
“Smith is one of our best living critics, and she has transposed the instructive, contagious voice of her essays into Swing Time. Like Smith the critic, Smith the novelist encourages us to explore what has so enchanted her. Following the narrator, we too can be mesmerized by clips of [Jeni] LeGon, by the feats of the Nicholas brothers, and retrieve what risks being lost to the past. Swing Time is criticism set to fiction, like dance is set to music. One complements—and animates—the other.” —The Atlantic
“As ever, the beauty of Smith’s work is in the grace and empathy with which she crafts her characters.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“The richness of ‘Swing Time’ lies in Ms. Smith’s spot-on descriptions.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Swing Time is Zadie Smith’s fifth novel and for my money her finest.” —The Guardian
“As intricate and beautiful as a ballet . . . A terrific book from one of our greatest novelists.” —Vox
“Female friendship has become a literary focus in recent years, and Zadie Smith’s take on the subject in Swing Time is my favourite. Tracing the evolution of a childhood friendship into adulthood, she bracingly portrays the compromises and bargains we all eventually make. Smith’s idiosyncratic gaze and keen, supple prose transform and elevate everything she touches.” —Jennifer Egan, The Guardian’s Best Books of 2017
“A beautiful and accomplished novel that will stir in readers all of those uncomfortable but necessary feelings of nostalgia.” —Bustle
“Where [Smith] really shines is in creating characters so fully realized, you actually forget that they’re fictional.” —PureWow
“Meaty, long and complex, with sub-explorations that could each be a novella or short story . . . The most satisfying contemporary reading experience I’ve had since I discovered Elena Ferrante.” —Flavorwire
“Frustrating and fascinating—and all the while gloriously human—Smith’s characters take us through an entrancing exploration of subjects such as race, class, friendship, talent, and much more, giving us the world in all its great complexity and contradiction.” —Buzzfeed, “Best Fiction Books Of 2016”
“Mesmerizing.” —Chicago Tribune
“A far-reaching, serio-comic rumination on race, privilege and profound relationships between mothers and daughters, friends and rivals, idols and followers.” —The Seattle Times
“This is a novel that will sweep you up in its rhythms.” —Bustle
“Engrossing . . . A compelling, readable and weighty novel that ponders what our relationships say about us and how complicit we are in our own fate.” —Town & Country
“I can’t deny the spell cast by Swing Time, Zadie Smith’s latest. I can’t hold back from declaring it first a career peak, one she’ll be hard-pressed to top, and beyond that a steep challenge for any novelist out there. Smith might well have left a whole host of her contemporaries cold-cocked . . . If anyone’s delivering reliable intel from the frontiers of the 21st century cosmopolis, it’s Zadie Smith.” —Brooklyn Rail
“The incomparable cultural force that is Zadie Smith continues her legacy of acute portrayals of carefully chosen slices of modern life . . . A keenly-felt exploration of friendship, race, fame, motherhood and the ineluctable truth that our origins will forever determine our fates.” —Harper’s Bazaar, Best Books of 2016
“A virtuoso performance, filled with distinct and nuanced observations about dance, race, class, celebrity, global culture, appropriation and the special intimacies between girlfriends and between mothers and daughters.” —BBC.com
“The day a new Zadie Smith book comes out should be a national holiday.” —LitHub
“The book feels like the culmination of all her talents: a novel with a gift for character and dialogue, a story rooted in a deep cultural and racial awareness.” —Kevin Nguyen, Book of the Month
“Agile and discerning . . . With homage to dance as a unifying force, arresting observations . . . exceptionally diverse and magnetizing characters, and lashing satire, Swing Time is an acidly funny, fluently global, and head-spinning novel about the quest for meaning, exaltation, and love . . . This tale of friendship lost and found is going to be big.” —Booklist (starred)
“The narrative moves deftly and absorbingly between its increasingly tense coming-of-age story and the adult life of the sympathetic if naïve and sometimes troubling narrator . . . A rich and sensitive drama highly recommended for all readers.” —Library Journal (starred)
“A keen, controlled novel about dance and blackness steps onto a stage of cultural land mines . . . Smith is dazzling in her specificity, evoking predicaments, worldviews, and personalities with a camera-vivid precision . . . Moving, funny, and grave, this novel parses race and global politics with Fred Astaire’s or Michael Jackson's grace.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“As ever, Smith plies her signature humor and sensitivity as she traces the contours of race and lived experience.” —ELLE.com’s Must-Read Books for Fall
“[A] powerful and complex novel . . . Rich and absorbing, especially when it highlights Smith's ever-brilliant perspective on pop culture.” —Publishers Weekly (starred)
About the Author
- Publisher : Penguin Books; Reprint edition (September 5, 2017)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 464 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0143111647
- ISBN-13 : 978-0143111641
- Item Weight : 12.8 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.46 x 1.02 x 8.41 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #88,895 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
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Top reviews from the United States
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Swing Time, a multifaceted story of two biracial girls growing up in significantly different homes who become inseparable friends but face divergent destinies.
Tracey and the Narrator (unnamed) meet in 1982 as they are both signing up for a ballet class at a church in a working-class section of London. Both are mixed race with the narrator having a black intellectual ambitious mother (of Caribbean descent) while her white father who is nurturing but less ambition. Tracey’s mother, on the other hand is white, ignorant, indulgent and unattractive and her criminal father spends most of his time in jail leaving Tracey morally directionless. Tracey has the talent and ends up on stage with a dancing career while the narrator begins work as a personal assistant to an Australian Madonna-like pop star named Aimee. Aimee decides to build a school for girls in West Africa and the narrator takes on the complicated dynamics of working in a country entrenched in poverty and old beliefs taking assignments from a unstable boss. She reports, "I scheduled abortions, hired dog walkers, ordered flowers, wrote Mother's Day cards, applied creams, administered injections, squeezed spots, and wiped very occasional break-up tears.". The story begins in 2008 as the narrator is reeling from the embarrassment of being fired and then moves back and forth in time and location from London to New York to West Africa. The chapters headings are numbered but not identified as to time or location and so it takes a minute to figure out the location and time frame. It is written from the first-person narrative making the identification of who is speaking easier to determine. Some of the characters, although central to the story, seemed to be not fully realized. Intelligently written and researched. 4 stars
Swing Time is many things. It’s a perfectly constructed novel written with a poet’s ear for language. It’s also partly a Marxist fable of the corruption of great wealth: “Maybe luxury is the easiest matrix to pass through. Maybe nothing is easier to get used to than money.” Partly a feminist meditation on gender inequality: “I often thought I saw her again, this girl who lives everywhere and at all times in history, who is sweeping the yard or pouring out tea or carrying somebody else’s baby on her hip and looking over at you with a secret she can’t tell.” Swing Time also is a coming-of-age story about a young woman and her best friend, and the different arcs each of their lives took.
This book deserves to be read and re-read, each time discerning new dimensions to Zadie Smith’s intimate novel.
Top reviews from other countries
The story dips back and forth in our narrator's life. There was a friendly childhood rivalry with Tracey - who lived fun the flats on the wrong side of the road. There was the job working for a youth TV company. There was the mother's political career as she became MP for Brent West. There were romances. The really constant line, though, is Aimee. This is a good insight into the world of the super-rich; the superstars with retinues, with diaries chock-full of trivia, with a quest for new challenges when everything has already been achieved. So we follow our narrator, following Aimee to The Gambia where the plan is to set up a school for girls. Aimee has the big idea, her retinue have to make it happen. It is a classic case of imposing western values on a developing country; the school is not what the community needs but, by God, it is what they are going to get.
But the Gambian line starts to get bogged down with personal relationships. As the Aimee party all seem to hook up with Gambians, it gets mighty dull. Do I care that A fancies B and B fancies C? I think not.
And the Tracey line is also interesting, although it is not quite clear how friendly rivalry in teenage became hostility in adulthood. Tracey is a dancer and pursues her dream. Our narrator doesn't really have a dream but pursues it anyway. There was supposed to be a significant moment, but when it is revealed it carries too much weight.
There is enough in the book to make the reader smile. There is pop culture, satire, race, class, politics. But there is also this saggy, baggy middle that goes on way too long and allows the interest to wane. I didn't buy the ending at all - which required our narrator to become a disgruntled employee and for her employer to discover that fact. Both these premises were implausible. But at least it brought a long novel to a somewhat belated end.
This sounds negative, but on balance the good did outweigh the bad. But if only there had been a stronger editor...
In Swing Time, as she had done with White Teeth a worryingly long time ago, she has tried to include everything but the kitchen sink, every concern about race, class, gender and age, as well as ambivalence or disquiet about globalisation, celebrity, technology, politics, nostalgia, human motives and the depths of friendship. In her previous novels I felt a certain coldness and detachment, even in – perhaps especially in – NW, her own favourite. But I guess that is just my personal feeling (like how I am moved by the singing of Jennifer Hudson but nauseated by Celine Dion!), but this feeling troubled me as the milieu – multicultural, working-class London – is mine and I wanted to hear someone who spoke to me in a way that I could relate to, something I’m still kind of waiting for, though an indie novel I read a couple of years back came close.
Maybe because Swing Time movingly puts our little lives into perspective within the greater scheme of things while acknowledging that our little lives are all we have, this time Zadie has got it right. The blurb, reviews and publicity have made this work familiar before anyone reads it and hardly worth summarising except that it is, unsurprisingly, about two ‘brown’ girls brought up on the wrong side of the tracks in a drab inner London suburb, one intelligent but tortured by self-doubt, the other vivacious and talented but unruly, and how life pans out for them. Understanding these personality differences, their home and familial circumstances, and the emotional tension between the two in their early years is fundamental to understanding the book overall, even during the years they are apart and living in unlike worlds. There were a few occasions in the African sections when I feared that things were about to become a bit preachy or cloying but the author deftly managed to remain even-handed every time. It was all so impressive. I just felt that this was what I had been waiting for from Zadie. The thing is I have experienced many of the narrator’s internalised feelings, but I wish I could write like that!
Is she one of the world’s great novelists? Now – in my opinion – yes, but there are not many of them.
The narrative then goes back to her childhood and her best friend Tracey, an aspiring dancer with whom she shares a mutual obsession with old dance movies. Her mother also features heavily in this earlier section - a proud woman educating herself and refusing to be defined by labels.
As the book goes on the far and recent pasts intermingle and we learn more about her job. She seems to have no life beyond Aimee's, no friends who aren't part of the star's world. Some of the best sections are set in Africa where Aimee has decided to set up a girl's school.
It's an entertaining read if you don't mind a fairly unlikeable and naive central character, but it is rather disjointed and overlong. The different sections tumble over themselves and there is so much going on that nothing ever gets followed through fully. So much so that it felt as though there were three separate novels in there struggling to get out: Tracey's, the mother's and Aimee's. All three characters are at least as interesting, and probably more so, than our self obsessed narrator.
All in all it's an easy read that rattles along.