Swing Time Summary

Swing Time is a 2016 novel by Zadie Smith about a woman’s journey from childhood to young adulthood, tracing her shifting relationships and evolving sense of identity.

  • The unnamed narrator and protagonist grows up in London to a politically active Jamaican mother and a white father.
  • The narrator and her best friend, Tracey, attend dance classes together, but Tracey is far more talented. As adolescents, they grow apart.
  • As a young adult, the narrator works for Aimee, a pop star whose philanthropic ambitions run counter to the political and social values the narrator learned from her upbringing.

Summary

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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1366

Unfolding in a nonlinear fashion from the first-person perspective of an unnamed narrator, Swing Time opens in 2005 at a point when the narrator is exiled to a flat in Westminster. It is not clear what circumstances have led her to this situation, but she notes that she has recently...

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Unfolding in a nonlinear fashion from the first-person perspective of an unnamed narrator, Swing Time opens in 2005 at a point when the narrator is exiled to a flat in Westminster. It is not clear what circumstances have led her to this situation, but she notes that she has recently been fired. Forced into a communication blackout, the narrator goes for a walk and, on a whim, attends an interview with a film director, during which an excerpt of the 1936 classic Swing Time is aired. Watching the clip, a dance sequence featuring shadows, the narrator has the epiphany that her existence, too, is shadow-like. Back at the flat, she shows the dance sequence to her lover Lamin and notices for the first time that it depicts the actor Fred Astaire in a version of blackface. When she switches on her phone, she receives a threatening message with a video attachment from an old friend.

The narrator first meets her childhood best friend Tracey in 1982, when they are both seven. The only two mixed-race girls in the dance class held in their neighborhood church, the narrator and Tracey are immediately drawn to each other. Tracey’s and the narrator’s parental pairings are mirror opposites: While the narrator’s mother is Jamaican, it is Tracey’s absentee father who is of Afro-Caribbean origin. The narrator’s mother is a politically conscious feminist with a desire to better herself. However, the narrator interprets her mother’s independent pursuits as abandonment. The narrator’s father tries to match up to her mother’s intellectual commitments but often falls short. Tracey is raised by her single white mother, who parents her permissively. The narrator is aware that her own mother looks down upon Tracey’s family. Yet the narrator is captivated by Tracey, whom she considers a gifted dancer. The narrator learns early on that she herself does not have a talent for dance.

Though the narrator’s family seems perfect, the narrator discovers that her father has two other children, who are white, from a previous relationship. Meanwhile, Tracey’s behavior takes a turn for the worse, especially in the presence of adults. At the tenth birthday party of their dance-class peer Lily Bingham, Tracey uses cuss words. Tracey and the narrator also perform and film an obscene dance parodying a video by the pop star Aimee. Tracey steals the video tape of the recording.

In 1998, the twenty-two-year-old narrator is an intern at a music channel called YTV. She encounters Aimee, who is visiting the YTV office to film an award acceptance speech. Something about the narrator’s manner interests Aimee, and she offers her a job as her personal assistant a few days later. The narrator accepts, joining a team that is led by Aimee’s childhood friend Judy Ryan. Though the narrator is charmed by Aimee’s energy, she often finds Aimee’s privileged notions problematic.

When the narrator and Tracey are ten, the narrator learns that Tracey’s father, Louie, has been sent to prison.

In the 2000s, the narrator’s discomfort with Aimee’s ideology becomes more intense when Aimee decides to open a school in an unnamed country in West Africa. Despite her reservation about Aimee’s plan to “reduce” global poverty without the help of governments, the narrator conducts reconnaissance work for Aimee in the West African country. In the village chosen to be the site of the school, the narrator meets the soft-spoken and frugal teacher Lamin. She also strikes up a friendship with Fernando Carrapichano, a Brazilian economist who is the manager for the project. The narrator is discomfited by the disparity between Aimee’s wealth and the poverty around her. Back in London, the narrator’s mother, now a Member of Parliament and in a relationship with a woman named Miriam, echoes the narrator’s misgivings about Aimee’s project.

When the narrator is fifteen, she purposely fails an entrance examination to a prestigious private school to defy her mother’s high expectations, choosing instead to attend public school. Tracey is accepted at “stage,” or performing arts school, and the friends grow further apart. However, without Tracey, the narrator feels unmoored and experiments with different identities in her new classroom. During her Goth phase, she has sex with an unfamiliar boy at a party. The same night, she witnesses Tracey in the throes of a drug overdose. The narrator’s mother drives Tracey to the hospital. Later, Miss Isabel invites Tracey and the narrator to volunteer at a dance show at their old studio. However, after the show, the ticket money is found to be stolen, and Tracey is accused. Enraged, Tracey and her mother accuse the girls’ old piano teacher, Mr. Booth, of sexually abusing Tracey.

Failing to secure a job after graduating from college, the narrator goes to live with her father, who is now divorced from her mother. Tracey unexpectedly asks the narrator to work as a stagehand for Guys and Dolls, a production in which she is dancing. However, when the narrator quits the production to work with YTV, Tracey sends her a letter revealing that she has seen the narrator’s father having sex with an inflatable doll that caricatures a Black woman. The narrator distances herself from both Tracey and her father.

In her second trip to the village, the narrator grows close to the young teacher Hawa. The narrator suspects Lamin and Hawa may be in love, which they both deny. Many new developments occur over the course of the narrator’s subsequent visits to the village. The school is founded. Aimee’s interest in the school begins to dwindle. Hawa gets engaged to a Tablighi man who follows an austere form of Islam. Aimee begins a relationship with Lamin and plans to get him a visa to New York. Aimee and Judy grow cold towards the narrator, because her mother has been publicly criticizing the government of the African nation in which their school is situated. Lamin comes to New York. Fern confesses his love for the narrator, but she rejects him. The narrator’s discomfort with her current situation becomes more acute.

Back in London, the narrator’s mother tells her Tracey has been sending her vituperative emails blaming her for Tracey’s lot in life. Later, the narrator learns from Miriam that her mother has cancer. She reads the concerning emails and visits Tracey, who has turned into a harried stay-at-home mother with three children. Tracey has also given up her professional dance career. Despite the narrator’s request, Tracey refuses to stop emailing the narrator’s mother.

Aimee decides to visit the West African country again to open a sexual health clinic at the girls’ school. The narrator and Aimee encounter a gorgeous baby in the village, for whom the narrator feels instant love. The same evening, the narrator and Lamin begin an affair. In New York, the narrator is shocked to discover that the baby they had met has been adopted by Aimee, possibly through illegal channels.

A month later, Fern informs Aimee of the narrator’s affair with Lamin, and the narrator gets fired and thrown out of her flat. The narrator, enraged and now forced to live with acquaintances in New York, informs the media about the back-channel adoption in which Aimee has indulged. A scandal breaks out, and Aimee arranges for the narrator to be sent to Westminster.

The narrative of the novel now loops back to the point at which it began. The threatening message with the video attachment is from Tracey. Tracey leaks online the obscene dance video from Lily Bingham’s party. So far considered a whistleblower on the illicit adoption, the narrator is now perceived as manipulative by the public. She secures a British visa for Lamin, but the two drift apart.

By now the narrator’s critically ill mother is in hospice. During a visit by the narrator, her mother asks her in a fit of delirium to adopt Tracey’s children. As the narrator drives up to Tracey’s flat, her mother dies in the hospice. The narrator watches Tracey dancing with her children in the balcony of her flat.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1940

Author: Zadie Smith

Publisher: Penguin Press (New York). 153 pp.

Type of work: Novel

Time: 1980s–2000s

Locale: London, New York, West Africa

In Swing Time, acclaimed novelist Zadie Smith traces the divergent lives of two dance-obsessed childhood friends who grew up together in council estates in Northwest London. In doing so, she weaves a multifaceted narrative about coming of age, the false promises of philanthropy, and the strange turns that life can take.

Principal characters

Narrator, the book’s unnamed protagonist, a mixed-race girl from Northwest London who as an adult becomes a longtime assistant to the pop star AimeeCourtesy of Penguin PressCourtesy of Dominique Nabokov

Tracey, the narrator’s best friend from childhood; as an adult, she enjoys a brief career in the theater before falling back into the trappings of poverty and estate life

Narrator’s mother, a community activist and later member of Parliament. Originally from Jamaica, she is very focused on her Afro-Caribbean heritage.

Narrator’s father, a postal service worker from a white, working-class family

Aimee, a Madonna-like pop star and would-be philanthropist who employs the narrator

Lamin, schoolteacher in an unnamed West African country who becomes the lover of both Aimee and the narrator

Hawa, schoolteacher in an unnamed West African country

A fraught friendship that is followed from childhood into adulthood is the basis of Zadie Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time. Smith began her career by chronicling the lives of two wartime friends, a Bangladeshi and an Englishman, and their families as they grow in her 2000 book White Teeth. In White Teeth, as in her subsequent work, the courses of friendships are influenced not only by personalities, but by the complex class and social structures that have defined post-empire Britain, particularly from the 1970s onward.

Throughout her novels—and indeed in her nonfiction—Smith has exhibited a razor-sharp talent for observation, a wealth of wit, and has, in many different ways, picked apart the ways that people of different ethnicities and cultures interact and form relationships. Whether found in describing nuances of life in a mixed-race family or writing a treatise on the cultural importance of hip-hop, race and identity always make their mark in Smith’s writing. Both her fiction and her essays have made her into one of the most important critical commentators on contemporary culture.

Throughout her next three novels, Smith continued her exploration of contemporary life and culture by exploring an autograph hunter’s relationship with a reclusive actor in The Autograph Man (2002), a strained mixed-race marriage in On Beauty (2005), and the overlapping lives of four different Londoners in NW (2012). In all of these books, Smith employs a number of narrative viewpoints to illustrate the multiplicity of lives in contemporary Britain. In Swing Time, however, she confines her point of view to one character, employing a strict first-person voice. The unnamed narrator who, in the book’s shifting timeline grows from a young girl to a thirty-something adult, is in many ways a vehicle for observing and commenting on the actions of the book’s more dynamic characters. As she herself observes, “I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people . . . I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.”

The first person that the narrator meets that she attaches herself to in this way is Tracey. As biracial children in an otherwise white dance class, the narrator and Tracey form an unspoken alliance the first time they meet. The girls are drawn to each other because their “shade of brown was exactly the same.” This develops into a proper friendship as the two spend more and more time with each other, watching classic musicals and writing lurid backstage dramas. Their love of dance becomes the cornerstone of their friendship, but only one of them shows any talent for it. Watching her friend, the narrator notes that, “every movement was as sharp and precise as any child could hope to make it, her body could align itself with any time signature, no matter how intricate. . . . I was—I am—in awe of Tracey’s technique. She knew the right time to do everything.”

By contrast, the narrator’s own flat feet make her unfit for pursuing higher levels of dance. This is only one of several essential differences between the two girls. Although Tracey and the narrator each have one black parent and one white parent and both live in the council estates, the narrator lives in a nicer estate and is raised, for most of her childhood, in a two-parent household, while Tracey’s father is in and out of jail. Similarly, while the narrator is a more passive participant in the events going on around her, Tracey is the more dominant figure, leading the activities of their playdates and goading the narrator into questionable behavior. She is also the more imaginative one, concocting fantastical, reality-defying scenarios, while the narrator remains more grounded in the circumstances of everyday life.

As the two girls grow older, they drift apart and lose touch. The narrator’s autodidact mother, who pulls herself up from poverty to become a member of Parliament, creates a home environment that, no matter how much the narrator resists it, puts her on the path to a middle-class lifestyle. Tracey’s rougher upbringing, as well as her self-destructive tendencies, relegate her to a life of single motherhood and impoverishment, despite her initial success in the theater world. She ends up in the same council estate she grew up in, mentally unstable, harassing the narrator’s mother with a series of threatening e-mails. This behavior shows how Tracey’s passionate personality has devolved into hatred and mental instability and draws a sharp contrast between her working-class status and the narrator’s own life in the upper-middle class.

The second woman whom the narrator shadows is a Madonna-like pop star known only as Aimee. After taking a brief gig at an MTV-like station, the narrator meets Aimee, who hires her as a personal assistant. The narrator is employed by Aimee for nearly a decade. Aimee decides to fund a school in an unnamed West African country and the narrator makes frequent trips there to oversee the project. Although Smith often indulges in some rather easy barbs at white philanthropy, pointing at the self-serving, ignorant nature of Aimee’s endeavors, she has far more in mind than simple point scoring. While she takes swipes at white philanthropy, Smith does not only look at the villagers (Lamin and Hawa in particular) from the perspective of the Western philanthropist. She instead delves into their culture and individual desires, as well as the complicated relationships with their own country and to the westerners who descend upon them.

Aimee herself is no mere caricature, but a woman who, for all her myopia, has a dynamism that has to be admired. Smith is on strong ground when she has her narrator consider this complex figure. The narrator smartly susses out that Aimee can only view human differences as “never structural or economic but always essentially differences of personality,” a bit of willful naiveté. But then she works her way around to admiring what Aimee was able to build herself into by force of will. “Over ten years,” she writes, “I saw how formidable [her] will could be, what it could make happen. And all the labor she put into it—all the physical exercise, the deliberate blindness, the innocence cultivated, the very many ways she fell in and out of love—all this came to seem to me a form of energy in itself.”

This thoughtful observation on the narrator’s part is one of the hallmarks of the book. She calmly considers the world in front of her, rarely taking any kind of definitive action, but reveals the complexities of the world around her. While this makes the narrator a conduit for insight into the other characters, she never becomes a fully realized character herself. When she finally does something drastic, however, her action leads to a dismissal from her position and creates a furor on the Internet. Smith is careful to make clear the difference between the narrator as she is writing the book and as she is living through the events she is narrating. The narrator frequently refers to her own act of writing, which provides a sense of retrospective to the story. Because the narrator has enough distance from the material, she can be a detached observer in much the same way that Smith, through creating and observing her fictional world, is able to operate.

As the novel continually expands outward, the relationship between the two childhood friends, the narrator and Tracey, is never far from the surface. This relationship, whether in the foreground or somewhere in the back of the narrator’s mind, forms the sad heart of the book. The result is a nuanced, multifaceted work that, while confining its perspective to a single point of view, achieves a richness that rivals any of Smith’s previous novels.

This was a view shared by many of the book’s reviewers who praised the book’s complexity and fluidity. Annalisa Quinn of NPR noted that “some writers name, organize, and contain; Smith lets contradictions bloom, in all their frightening, uneasy splendor,” while Aminatta Forna of the Guardian found that “the novel’s strength lies in its unflinching portrait of friendship.” The book received plenty of mentions in year-end lists. It made the Washington Post’s “Ten Best Books of 2016” and was named a notable book by the New York Times.

Those critics who were less receptive to the novel often focused on the sketchy nature of the narrator. For example, John Boyne of the Irish Times finds that the book “lack[s] a consistent narrative drive, an interesting voice, or a compelling point of view,” noting that “by the end, one feels no closer to understanding the central character.” But this does not seem to be the majority viewpoint. Most reviewers recognize that the shadow-like nature of the protagonist is a deliberate, effective device on the part of Smith. By allowing her narrator to drift and observe, she is able to provide the reader with a unique perspective on our contemporary world which, since her precocious debut sixteen years earlier, is nothing less than what we have come to expect from Zadie Smith.

Review Sources

  • Bass, Holly. “Zadie Smith’s New Novel Takes on Dance, Fame and Friendship.” Review of Swing Time by Zadie Smith. The New York Times, 10 Nov. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/11/13/books/review/zadie-smith-swing-time.html. Accessed 22 Dec. 2016.
  • Boyne, John. “Swing Time Review: Zadie Smith’s New Novel Can’t Overcome Faults.” The Irish Times, 12 Nov. 2016, www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/swing-time-review-zadie-smith-s-new-novel-can-t-overcome-faults-1.2858001. Accessed 22 Dec. 2016.
  • Charles, Ron. “Swing Time: Zadie Smith’s Sweeping Novel about Friendship, Race, and Class.” The Washington Post, 9 Nov. 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/swing-time-zadie-smiths-sweeping-novel-about-friendship-race-and-class/2016/11/09/3975c488-a297-11e6-8832-23a007c77bb4_story.html. Accessed 22 Dec. 2016.
  • Forna, Aminatta. “Swing Time by Zadie Smith Review—An Unflinching Portrait of Friendship.” The Guardian, 4 Nov. 2016, www.theguardian.com/books/2016/nov/04/swing-time-by-zadie-smith-review. Accessed 22 Dec. 2016.
  • Quinn, Annalisa. “Know Thyself? Swing Time Says It’s Complicated.” Review of Swing Time by Zadie Smith. NPR, 16 Nov. 2016, www.npr.org/2016/11/16/501484095/know-thyself-swing-time-says-it-cant-be-done. Accessed 22 Dec. 2016.
  • Szalai, Jennifer. “In the Shade: Zadie Smith and the Limits of Being Oneself.” Review of Swing Time by Zadie Smith. Harper’s, Jan. 2017, http://harpers.org/archive/2017/01/in-the-shade/. Accessed 25 Jan. 2017.
  • Tortorici, Dayna. “Zadie Smith’s Dance of Ambivalence.” Review of Swing Time by Zadie Smith. The Atlantic, Dec. 2016, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/12/zadie-smiths-dance-of-ambivalence/505832/ . Accessed 22 Dec. 2016.
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