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Cover for Swing Time

Swing Time

A Novel

Zadie Smith


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Other Editions of This Title:
Digital Audiobook (11/14/2016)
CD-Audio (11/22/2016)

Top Ten

“We never learn the narrator's name in Zadie Smith's Swing Time, and yet we know the character intimately. We see her in contrast to her childhood friend Tracey, who is agile and beautiful compared to the narrator's more prosaic style. We follow her as she matures into adulthood as the assistant to an Australian pop star. The chapters switch between past and present, and we see it all vividly: the struggles of maintaining friendships, racial tensions, parenting disparities, world politics. Once again, Smith has taken on the tough subjects. This will be a great pick for book clubs.”
— Mamie Potter, Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh, NC
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“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

“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.

Praise For Swing Time: A Novel

“This is a story at once intimate and global, as much about childhood friendship as international aid, as fascinated by the fate of an unemployed single mother as it is by the omnipotence of a world-class singer . . . Smith’s attention to the grace notes of friendship is as precise as ever . . . Swing Time uses its extraordinary breadth and its syncopated structure to turn the issues of race and class in every direction…We finally have a big social novel nimble enough to keep all its diverse parts moving gracefully toward a vision of what really matters in this life when the music stops.” —Ron Charles, Washington Post

“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, 

“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

“Stunning.” —SELF

“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.” —

“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.” —’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) 

Penguin Books, 9780143111641, 464pp.

Publication Date: September 5, 2017

About the Author

Zadie Smith is the author of the novels White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, NW, and Swing Time, as well as two collection of essays, Changing My MindFeel Free, and Grand Union.

Conversation Starters from

1. The title, Swing Time, is a reference to the 1936 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical of the same name. How do you see the title connecting to themes throughout the book? How does it connect to the different shifts and periods of time, too?

2. The narrator tells the stories of the four other women while remaining in the background, unnamed. Even when watching Swing Time, she realizes that the dancer she watches is the shadow. Why do you think the narrator stayed unnamed? Did you trust her?

3. The book alternates between the narrator’s childhood and her adult life. How did this structure allow you to see multiple perspectives of the same situation, even though both were from the same person’s point of view?

4. There are several examples of people who wasted their life or a talent due to the circumstances of class or race. On page 159, the narrator’s mother describes the cases she witnessed and how it showed “The thousand and one ways a life can be sunk in misery almost before it’s begun.” How did these unrealized abilities and desires apply to both Tracey and the narrator?

5. On page 266, the narrator thinks, “All of these versions of Tracey were reaching across the years of the church hall to ask me a question: What are you going to do? To which we both already knew the answer. Nothing.” What did this mean to you?

6. Zadie Smith, like the narrator, is the daughter of a Jamaican mother and an Irish father, and also grew up in a housing project in England. Authors of fiction often draw on real life experiences. Does this information lend more credibility or authority for you to the telling of the story? Does it change how you perceived anything?

7. Many characters in the book are identified or defined by their race and class. Roots are also important in each place – in New York, London and the town in Africa. How do you see the definitions of race and class changing or dictating the lives of Aimee, Hawa, Tracey, and the narrator’s mother? What do you think of Hawa’s brother’s conversation about class in their community versus in New York, where he also saw contempt (278)?

8. The idea of not fitting into a specific race or class populates the book. Strangers ask if the narrator will grow up confused or question how she will choose between her parents’ cultures. The narrator feels like she is strange to both her mother and father, “a changeling belonging to neither one of them”. How does this affect the narrator? How do you think she ends up choosing between her cultures?

9. What do you think Tracey hoped people would now understand about the narrator when she sent the video and wrote, “Now people will know who you really are.”?

10. On page 438, the narrator describes the public reaction to the childhood dance video and concerns over what was considered pornographic content. The narrator then addresses the reader, or “you”: “And if you think it more than that, then who has the problem, exactly, the girls in the film-or you?” What do you think made viewers uncomfortable or guilty about watching this video? Why is “The desire to be on the side of innocence” so strong?

11. The boys on the bridge are referred to a few times, but the meaning of that situation changes for the narrator. On page 160, the narrator’s mom says, “They didn’t have a chance”. The narrator later reflects that her mom’s statement was “a sentence moving in two directions.” What did she mean by that? On page 450, the narrator leaves Fern at the tube: “I left him and chose the bridge. Ignoring both barriers, walking straight down the center, over the river, until I reached the other side.” How has the narrator’s sense of choice, and the power to choose, changed at this point? What meaning is behind this action? Where else do you see the theme, and power, of choice in the novel?

12. The narrator’s mother talks about “sankofa” when the narrator is young, she encounters it again while in Africa, and then it becomes the name of Aimee’s adopted child. How does the meaning of sankofa (the West African symbol of a bird that “looks back over itself” to retrieve what’s been lost to the past) relate to the meaning of the book overall? How does it relate to the meaning the narrator is searching for in her own life?

13. What did you think of the structure with the prologue, named parts, and epilogue? Did you reread the prologue after you finished the book?