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.

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Last Updated on February 3, 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 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.

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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.

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