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Swing Time

Swing Time

4.0 3
by Zadie Smith

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A New York Times bestseller
Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction

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


A New York Times bestseller
Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction

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.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review

Zadie Smith has such a pleasant presence on the page that one only reluctantly abandons her. In Swing Time, her companionable voice will carry you for hundreds of pages. Even her description of the home of a depressed uncle is soaked in empathy: "It was a garden of abundance and decay: the tomatoes were too ripe, the marijuana too strong, woodlice were hiding under everything. Lambert lived all alone there, and it felt to me like a dying place." The narrator, whom we meet as a young girl and follow into her early thirties, has no name. It's easy to imagine she's actually just Smith, that you have been lucky enough to befriend one of the world's leading novelists and she is confiding in you. That Smith manages to work in that intimate way without revealing much of herself is her gift.

Of course, in Swing Time, the narrator is not Smith. She is a resident of a housing estate in 1980s London who meets and befriends a more outgoing and initially somewhat more blessed girl named Tracey. Their friendship is centered on dance class, about which both are passionate. But while the narrator and her friend both dream a future as professional dancers, only Tracey — whose beautifully arched feet contrast with the narrator's flat ones - - has a real shot. Their whole relationship is inflected with that kind of awe particular to friendships between young girls, the worship of a hero who is also a peer. It is an impression that lasts. "I was — I am — in awe of Tracey's technique," the narrator writes, with that emphasis on the present tense. "She knew the right time to do everything."

Yet, in a tale as old as time, the narrator is actually the one who is destined to rise above her circumstances. She is the one who goes to university, gets glamorous jobs, and moves away to New York, for a time. She is also the one who will find that Tracey's attempts to live out the dream of being a dancer are ultimately futile. In one of the novel's last scenes, the narrator visits the adult Tracey and finds "an anxious, heavy-set, middle-aged woman in terrycloth pajama bottoms." This moment occasions a classic instance of female aggressiveness: "I looked so much younger," the narrator thinks. It's the closest Swing Time ever comes to cliché.

It is hard to know if Smith was aware of the echoes of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels in her setup. Certainly Swing Time could, like Ferrante's books, be characterized as a novel about female friendship, albeit one inflected by race — both the narrator and Tracey are black. Of course, the result is not so simple. The narrator eventually abandons Tracey and moves on to a job as a personal assistant to an aging pop singer not entirely unlike Madonna. This opens up all sorts of fresh thematic angles: Charity, class, and celebrity all get their turn, too, at the helm of this elegant ship Smith has constructed.

Sailing is a useful metaphor for the way feel of reading Swing Time; Smith keeps things moving at a steady, elegant pace, but the journey remains all on one plane of experience. Never precisely a moralist, Smith isn't very comfortable pushing her characters deep into the dilemmas they find entangling them, in the difficult questions the novel does seem to want to raise. This, perhaps, is true to the way people actually live, skimming the surface of meaning. But in a novel it can occasionally be unsatisfying. The narrator of Swing Time, when she comes to a reckoning with her celebrity boss late in the novel, acts impulsively. The novel knows it; another character tells her so. But such self-consciousness only makes us more curious about what a deep dive into the narrator's motivations might have retrieved from the depths.

There is one exception: The trajectory of the narrator's life has been set by her mother, also unnamed, who had always had greater ambitions for her own life than she was able to realize. She is not the sort of mother who had dreamed of taking on that role, not a mother who thought her whole existence would revolve around her only child. "She believed my father wanted more children in order to entrap her, and she was basically right about that, although entrapment in this case was only another word for love," the narrator writes. Her mother's highly individual style — "plain white linen trousers" and "frayed espadrilles," "everything so plain, so understated, completely out of step with the spirit of the time," is alternatively a source of pride and embarrassment for her daughter — a more common parent-child relationship than the world generally admits. The character is fascinating.

And in fact, unlike most of the people in this book, the narrator's mother gradually gets some of what she wants: She gets a divorce. She gets herself educated. She becomes a local politician. She does not, not particularly, spend much time repairing her relationship with her daughter. Late in the book she tries to explain herself and the best she can offer, telling the narrator she's lucky. "You don't know how that feels because you're lucky, really, you were born lucky, but I know." At that moment the reader wants to know more of what the mother knows. But the book, its course charted, not wanting to interrupt its own rhythm, is ready to sail on.

Michelle Dean is a journalist, critic, and erstwhile lawyer whose writing has appeared at The New Yorker, Slate, The Nation, and The Awl.

Reviewer: Michelle Dean

The New York Times Book Review - Holly Bass
Smith has a knack for unearthing the deeper truths that lie beneath common experience. In Swing Time, she excels at capturing the world of prepubescence, with all of its unwritten rites and rules and frank sexuality…The novel's explorations of everyday village life in London and Africa contain specificity and verve. It's a world that feels real.
Publishers Weekly
★ 08/01/2016
At a dance class offered in a local church in London in the early 1980s, two brown girls recognize themselves in one another and become friends. Tracey has a sassy white mum, a black father in prison, and a pink Barbie sports car. The other girl, the narrator of Smith's (NW) powerful and complex novel, remains unnamed. Although she lives in the same public housing as Tracey, she's being raised among books and protests by an intellectual black feminist mother and a demure white father. As with Smith's previous work, the nuances of race relations are both subtle and explicit, not the focus of the book and yet informing every interaction. The girls both love dancing, but this commonality reflects their differences more than their similarities. Whereas Tracey's physical grace is confident and intuitive, the narrator is drawn to something more ephemeral: "a dancer was a man from nowhere, without parents or siblings, without a nation or people, without obligations of any kind, and this was exactly the quality I loved," she thinks. The book tracks the girls as they move in different directions through adolescence and the final, abrupt fissures of their affection; it also follows the narrator into adulthood, where she works for a decade as the personal assistant to a world-famous (white) pop star named Aimee. In this role, she's able to embody what she admired about dancers as a child: she travels constantly, rarely sees her mother, and has lost touch with everyone other than her employer. Once Aimee begins to build a girls' school in an unnamed Muslim West African country, the novel alternates between that world and the London of the girls' youth. In both places, poverty is a daily struggle and the juxtaposition makes for poignant parallels and contrasts. Though some of the later chapters seem unnecessarily protracted, the story is rich and absorbing, especially when it highlights Smith's ever-brilliant perspective on pop culture. Agent: Georgia Garrett, Rogers, Coleridge and White. (Nov.)
From the Publisher
“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, 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

"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

“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)

Library Journal
★ 09/15/2016
The remarkable Smith (NW) again does what she does best, packing a personal story (here, identifiably, of two competitive female friends) into a larger understanding of how we humans form tribes (a word used throughout). In London, two mixed-race girls meet in dance class, and while the narrator passionately loves movement, carefully studying steps in old-time movies, it's glamorous, dominant, socially advanced Tracey who wins medals and advances in her training. Even as their relationship veers between close and cold, our heroine struggles with a feminist, socially conscious Jamaica-born mother who spouts history lessons about social oppression and is disappointed when her daughter chooses not to stretch herself, ending up at a second-rate university and finally as a personal assistant to international pop sensation Aimee. Aimee is currently pushing a vainglorious project to bring a school to an African village, leaving plenty of room for Smith's ever nuanced play between and within racial and class structures. 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, whose betrayal of Aimee echoes Tracey's betrayal of her. VERDICT A rich and sensitive drama highly recommended for all readers. [See Prepub Alert, 5/2/16.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2016-08-08
A keen, controlled novel about dance and blackness steps onto a stage of cultural land mines.Smith, who wowed the world at 24 with her debut novel, White Teeth (2000), once again crafts quicksilver fiction around intense friendship, race, and class. She opens with a scene of that social media–fueled nightmare: public humiliation. “I’d lost my job, a certain version of my life, my privacy,” the unnamed narrator tells us. She was “put on a plane, sent back home, to England, set up with a temporary rental in St. John's Wood.” From this three-paragraph prologue, the story jumps abruptly back 24 years to 1982, when the narrator, a “horse-faced seven-year-old,” meets Tracey, another brown girl in North West London arriving for dance class. The result is a novel-length current of competition, love, and loathing between them. Tracey has the tap-dancing talent; the narrator’s gifts are more subterranean: “elegance attracted me. I liked the way it hid pain.” Tracey struggles for a life onstage while the narrator flies aloft, becoming personal assistant to Aimee, an Australian pop star: “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.” Smith is dazzling in her specificity, evoking predicaments, worldviews, and personalities with a camera-vivid precision. The mothers of the two women cube the complexity of this work, an echo of the four protagonists in Smith’s last novel, NW (2012). All their orbits are distorted by Aimee, the Madonna/Angelina Jolie–like celebrity impulsively building a girls’ school in West Africa. The novel toggles its short chapters between decades and continents, swinging time and geography. Aimee and her entourage dabble in philanthropy; Tracey and the narrator grope toward adulthood; and Fred Astaire, dancing in blackface in Swing Time, becomes an avatar of complexity presiding over the whole thing. In her acknowledgements, Smith credits an anthropological study, Islam, Youth and Modernity in the Gambia. Its insights flare against a portrait of Aimee, on the other side of the matrix, procuring “a baby as easily as she might order a limited-edition handbag from Japan.” Moving, funny, and grave, this novel parses race and global politics with Fred Astaire’s or Michael Jackson's grace.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.70(d)

Read an Excerpt


If all the Saturdays of 1982 can be thought of as one day, I met Tracey at ten a.m. on that Saturday, walking through the sandy gravel of a churchyard, each holding our mother’s hand. There were many other girls present but for obvious reasons we noticed each other, the similarities and the differences, as girls will. Our shade of brown was exactly the same—​as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both—​and our freckles gathered in the same areas, we were of the same height. But my face was ponderous and melancholy, with a long, serious nose, and my eyes turned down, as did my mouth. Tracey’s face was perky and round, she looked like a darker Shirley Temple, except her nose was as problematic as mine, I could see that much at once, a ridiculous nose—​it went straight up in the air like a little piglet. Cute, but also obscene: her nostrils were on permanent display. On noses you could call it a draw. On hair she won comprehensively. She had spiral curls, they reached to her backside and were gathered into two long plaits, glossy with some kind of oil, tied at their ends with satin yellow bows. Satin yellow bows were a phenomenon unknown to my mother. She pulled my great frizz back in a single cloud, tied with a black band. My mother was a feminist. She wore her hair in a ­half-­inch Afro, her skull was perfectly shaped, she never wore ­make‑­up and dressed us both as plainly as possible. Hair is not essential when you look like Nefertiti. She’d no need of ­make‑­up or products or jewelry or expensive clothes, and in this way her financial circumstances, her politics and her aesthetic were all perfectly—​conveniently—​matched. Accessories only cramped her style, including, or so I felt at the time, the ­horse-­faced ­seven-­year-­old by her side. Looking across at Tracey I diagnosed the opposite problem: her mother was white, obese, afflicted with acne. She wore her thin blond hair pulled back very tightly in what I knew my mother would call a “Kilburn facelift.” But Tracey’s personal glamour was the solution: she was her own mother’s most striking accessory. The family look, though not to my mother’s taste, I found captivating: logos, tin bangles and hoops, diamanté everything, expensive trainers of the kind my mother refused to recognize as a reality in the world—“Those aren’t shoes.” Despite appearances, though, there was not much to choose between our two families. We were both from the estates, neither of us received benefits. (A matter of pride for my mother, an outrage to Tracey’s: she had tried many times—​and failed—​to “get on the disability.”) In my mother’s view it was exactly these superficial similarities that lent so much weight to questions of taste. She dressed for a future not yet with us but which she expected to arrive. That’s what her plain white linen trousers were for, her ­blue-­and-­white-striped “Breton” ­T‑­shirt, her frayed espadrilles, her severe and beautiful African head—​everything so plain, so understated, completely out of step with the spirit of the time, and with the place. One day we would “get out of here,” she would complete her studies, become truly radical chic, perhaps even spoken of in the same breath as Angela Davis and Gloria Steinem . . . ­Straw-­soled shoes were all a part of this bold vision, they pointed subtly at the higher concepts. I was an accessory only in the sense that in my very plainness I signified admirable maternal restraint, it being considered bad taste—​in the circles to which my mother aspired—​to dress your daughter like a little whore. But Tracey was unashamedly her mother’s aspiration and avatar, her only joy, in those thrilling yellow bows, a ­frou-­frou skirt of many ruffles and a crop top revealing inches of childish ­nut-­brown belly, and as we pressed up against the pair of them in this ­bottleneck of mothers and daughters entering the church I watched with interest as Tracey’s mother pushed the girl in front of herself—​and in front of us—​using her own body as a means of obstruction, the flesh on her arms swinging as she beat us back, until she arrived in Miss Isabel’s dance class, a look of great pride and anxiety on her face, ready to place her precious cargo into the temporary care of others. My mother’s attitude, by contrast, was one of weary, ­semi-­ironic servitude, she thought the dance class ridiculous, she had better things to do, and after a few further Saturdays—​in which she sat slumped in one of the plastic chairs that lined the ­left-­hand wall, hardly able to contain her contempt for the whole exercise—​a change was made and my father took over. I waited for Tracey’s father to take over, but he never did. It turned out—​as my mother had guessed at once—​that there was no “Tracey’s father,” at least not in the conventional, married sense. This, too, was an example of bad taste.


I want to describe the church now, and Miss Isabel. An unpretentious ­nineteenth-­century building with large sandy stones on the façade, not unlike the cheap cladding you saw in the nastier houses—​though it couldn’t have been that—​and a satisfying, pointy steeple atop a plain, ­barn-­like interior. It was called St. Christopher’s. It looked just like the church we made with our fingers when we sang:

Here is the church

Here is the steeple

Open the doors

There’s all the people.

The stained glass told the story of St. Christopher carrying the baby Jesus on his shoulders across a river. It was poorly done: the saint looked mutilated, ­one-­armed. The original windows had blown out during the war. Opposite St. Christopher’s stood a ­high-­rise estate of poor reputation, and this was where Tracey lived. (Mine was nicer, ­low-­rise, in the next street.) Built in the sixties, it replaced a row of Victorian houses lost in the same bombing that had damaged the church, but here ended the relationship between the two buildings. The church, unable to tempt residents across the road for God, had made a pragmatic decision to diversify into other areas: a toddlers’ playgroup, ESL, driver training. These were popular, and ­well established, but ­Saturday-­morning dance classes were a new addition and no one knew quite what to make of them. The class itself cost two pounds fifty, but a maternal rumor went round concerning the going rate for ballet shoes, one woman had heard three pounds, another seven, ­so‑­and‑­so swore the only place you could get them was Freed, in Covent Garden, where they’d take ten quid off you as soon as look at you—​and then what about “tap” and what about “modern?” Could ballet shoes be worn for modern? What was modern? There was no one you could ask, no one who’d already done it, you were stuck. It was a rare mother whose curiosity extended to calling the number written on the ­homemade flyers ­stapled to the local trees. Many girls who might have made fine dancers never made it across that road, for fear of a ­homemade flyer.

My mother was rare: ­homemade flyers did not scare her. She had a terrific instinct for ­middle-­class mores. She knew, for example, that a ­car-­boot sale—​despite its unpromising name—​was where you could find a better quality of person, and also their old Penguin paperbacks, sometimes by Orwell, their old china ­pill-­boxes, their cracked Cornish earthenware, their discarded potter’s wheels. Our flat was full of such things. No plastic flowers for us, sparkly with fake dew, and no crystal figurines. This was all part of the plan. Even things I hated—​like my mother’s espadrilles—​usually turned out to be attractive to the kind of people we were trying to attract, and I learned not to question her methods, even when they filled me with shame. A week before classes were due to begin I heard her doing her posh voice in the galley kitchen, but when she got off the phone she had all the answers: five pounds for ballet shoes—​if you went to the shopping center instead of up into town—​and the tap shoes could wait till later. Ballet shoes could be used for modern. What was modern? She hadn’t asked. The concerned parent she would play, but never, ever the ignorant one.

My father was sent to get the shoes. The pink of the leather turned out to be a lighter shade than I’d hoped, it looked like the underside of a kitten, and the sole was a dirty gray cat’s tongue, and there were no long pink satin ribbons to ­criss-­cross over the ankles, no, only a sad little elastic strap which my father had sewn on himself. I was extremely bitter about it. But perhaps they were, like the espadrilles, deliberately “simple,” in good taste? It was possible to hold on to this idea right up to the moment when, having entered the hall, we were told to change into our dance clothes by the plastic chairs and go over to the opposite wall, to the barre. Almost everybody had the pink satin shoes, not the pale pink, piggy leather I was stuck with, and some—​girls whom I knew to be on benefits, or fatherless, or both—​had the shoes with long satin ribbons, ­criss-­crossing round their ankles. Tracey, who was standing next to me, with her left foot in her mother’s hand, had both—​the deep pink satin and the ­criss-­cross—​and also a full tutu, which no one else had even considered as a possibility, no more than turning up to a first swimming lesson in a diving suit. Miss Isabel, meanwhile, was ­sweet-­faced and friendly, but old, perhaps as old as ­forty-­five. It was disappointing. Solidly constructed, she looked more like a farmer’s wife than a ballet dancer and was all over pink and yellow, pink and yellow. Her hair was yellow, not blond, yellow like a canary. Her skin was very pink, raw pink, now that I think of it she probably suffered from rosacea. Her leotard was pink, her tracksuit bottoms were pink, her ­cover‑­up ballet cardigan was mohair and pink—​yet her shoes were silk and yellow, the same shade as her hair. I was bitter about this, too. Yellow had never been mentioned! Next to her, in the corner, a very old white man in a trilby sat playing an upright piano, “Night and Day,” a song I loved and was proud to recognize. I got the old songs from my father, whose own father had been a keen pub singer, the kind of man—​or so my father believed—​whose petty criminality represents, at least in part, some thwarted creative instinct. The piano player was called Mr. Booth. I hummed loudly along with him as he played, hoping to be heard, putting a lot of vibrato into my humming. I was a better singer than dancer—​I was not a dancer at all—​although I took too much pride in my singing, in a manner I knew my mother found obnoxious. Singing came naturally to me, but things that came naturally to females did not impress my mother, not at all. In her view you might as well be proud of breathing or walking or giving birth.

Our mothers served as our balance, as our ­foot-­rests. We placed one hand on their shoulders, we placed one foot on their bended knees. My body was presently in the hands of my mother—​being hoiked up and tied down, fastened and straightened, brushed off—​but my mind was on Tracey, and on the soles of her ballet shoes, upon which I now read “Freed” clearly stamped in the leather. Her natural arches were two hummingbirds in flight, curved in on themselves. My own feet were square and flat, they seemed to grind through the pos­itions. I felt like a toddler placing wooden blocks at a series of right angles to each other. Flutter, flutter, flutter said Isabel, yes that’s lovely Tracey. Compliments made Tracey throw her head back and flare her little pig nose awfully. Aside from that, she was perfection, I was besotted. Her mother seemed equally infatuated, her commitment to those classes the only consistent feature of what we would now call “her parenting.” She came to class more than any other mother, and while there her attention rarely wavered from her daughter’s feet. My own mother’s focus was always elsewhere. She could never simply sit somewhere and let time pass, she had to be learning something. She might arrive at the beginning of class with, say, The Black Jacobins in hand, and by the time I came over to ask her to swap my ballet shoes for tap she would already be a hundred pages through. Later, when my father took over, he either slept or “went for a walk,” the parental euphemism for smoking in the churchyard.

At this early stage Tracey and I were not friends or enemies or even acquaintances: we barely spoke. Yet there was always this mutual awareness, an invisible band strung between us, connecting us and preventing us from straying too deeply into relations with others. Technically, I spoke more to Lily Bingham—​who went to my school—​and Tracey’s own standby was sad old Danika Babic´, with her ripped tights and thick accent, she lived on Tracey’s corridor. But though we giggled and joked with these white girls during class, and although they had every right to assume that they were our focus, our central concern—​that we were, to them, the good friends we appeared to be—​as soon as it came to ­break-­time and squash and biscuits Tracey and I lined up next to each other, every time, it was almost unconscious, two iron filings drawn to a magnet.

It turned out Tracey was as curious about my family as I was about hers, arguing, with a certain authority, that we had things “the wrong way round.” I listened to her theory one day during break, dipping a biscuit anxiously into my orange squash. “With everyone else it’s the dad,” she said, and because I knew this to be more or less accurate I could think of nothing more to say. “When your dad’s white it means—” she continued, but at that moment Lily Bingham came and stood next to us and I never did learn what it meant when your dad was white. Lily was gangly, a foot taller than everyone else. She had long, perfectly straight blond hair, pink cheeks and a happy, open nature that seemed, both to Tracey and me, the direct consequence of 29 Exeter Road, a whole house, to which I had been recently invited, eagerly reporting back to Tracey—​who had never been—​a private garden, a giant ­jam-­jar full of “spare change” and a Swatch watch as big as a human man hanging on a bedroom wall. There were, consequently, things you couldn’t discuss in front of Lily Bingham, and now Tracey shut her mouth, stuck her nose in the air and crossed the room to ask her mother for her ballet shoes.

Meet the Author

Zadie Smith is the author of the novels White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, and NW, as well as a collection of essays, Changing My Mind. Swing Time is her fifth novel.

Brief Biography

London, England
Date of Birth:
October 27, 1975
Place of Birth:
Willesden, London, England
B.A. in English, King's College at Cambridge University, 1998

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Swing Time 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
SUEHAV More than 1 year ago
I read about 100 books a year and I have to say this one bored me to tears. Read 200 pages and had to stop.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thank you Zadie for reiterating voice.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago