Review: Swing Time, Zadie Smith

Two biracial girls grow up in the same bit of northwest London, attending dance classes together. Tracey has real talent, and our unnamed narrator does not, and Swing Time is about the unexpected paths their lives take as they grow into adulthood.

Swing Time

Content warning, there is very little dance school in this book. The narrator pretty quickly stops taking dance, so if you were going into Swing Time singing a little song to yourself like “dance school dance school dance school dance school,” you might end up disappointed. That’s not what I was doing or anything. It’s just something I thought of. That a person might do. Who liked reading about dance schools.

Halfway through Swing Time, I told Alice and Whiskey Jenny that I was considering giving it up. Two-thirds of the way through Swing Time, I was back in, while accepting quietly to myself that as a general rule, Zadie Smith’s fiction — like Michael Chabon’s — simply is not for me.

I loved Swing Time best when it got out of northwest London, which makes me suspect that I am completely missing the point of Zadie Smith, famed chronicler of life in northwest London, and that you shouldn’t listen to my opinion about this book or any Zadie-Smith related topics.1 Once the narrator and Aimee begin traveling to Africa to set up an Oprah-like school for girls there, I was 1000% more engaged in the story. I had occasional issues with the way the narrator presents her own life vs. life in Gambia,2 in particular:

Food preparation was not for me, nor was washing, or fetching water or pulling up onions or even feeding the goats and chickens. I was, in the strictest sense of the term, good-for-nothing. Even babies were handed to me ironically, and people laughed when they saw me holding one. Yes, great care was taken at all times to protect me from reality. They’d met people like me before. They knew how little reality we can take.

Maybe this was intended to showcase the narrator’s naivety about developing countries? It doesn’t feel that way — in general she’s portrayed as being awkward and unsociable to the Gambian folks she encounters, but not un-self-aware — but maybe I am misreading. If I am not misreading, then I have sneers to give to this quite patronizing idea that one way of living — close to the land, near large groups of family, butchering one’s own meat, struggling to get by — is more “real” somehow than another way of living. All ways of living are real, and I’m sure y’all understand why the particular idea that closeness to the Land and the Family is more real/authentic than, for instance, city living makes me a little twitchy just at this present historical moment.

HOWEVER. Apart from that one bit, I really enjoyed everything where the narrator is in Africa watching Aimee try to Do Good, an enthusiasm that everyone in Aimee’s entourage knows will not last. While Smith isn’t necessarily saying something I don’t know about charity work in developing nations, she’s writing about something I rarely see depicted in fiction with the specificity it receives here, namely the disconnect between intention and reality in international charitable giving.

Okay okay okay, I know that my interests are not everyone’s. But that is a topic of interest to me, and one that rarely arises in fiction by Western writers.

By contrast, I could not possibly have cared less about the relationship between the narrator and Tracey that forms the backbone of this book. I have two hypotheses as to why that could be. It could be that Zadie Smith never sells me on the friendship. You don’t see a single thing about the narrator that Tracey likes, or a single thing about Tracey that the narrator likes. I had no idea why these two people spent time together and continued to be in each other’s lives.

My second hypothesis is that I am finished, or close to finished, with stories about wild girls and the unwild girls who have complicated relationships with them. I possibly have read enough of those books, and I possibly am finished with them. I’m not sure. I’ll do further research on this matter and let you know the outcome.

Meanwhile, what are some dance school books you can recommend me? I love books set in dance schools and there are never enough of them.

  1. Except that her essays are really good and she has the face of an angel. Those opinions remain solid.
  2. Ready for a lengthy footnote? Here’s what happened. Zadie Smith never says “Gambia” but I figured it out anyway. The narrator says what countries are nearby — Benin, Togo, Senegal — and what groups dominated the country, and I narrowed it down in my head to Ghana or Gambia. And then she said something about the President for Life, and that was enough information to tell me Gambia. It was incredibly justifying of all the reading about Africa I have done / want to continue doing. Also please read this Alexis Okeowo sum-up of what’s going on with the president in Gambia (someone else got elected, but the sitting president won’t leave).
  • I haven’t read this one (and probably won’t), but have heard so many mixed reviews. Most recently, a real life friend finished it, told me she hated it and said it was mostly because of the narrator. But, I appreciate how well you articulated your issues with it and I suspect that Zadie Smith probably isn’t the author for me.
    PS – I haven’t read this either, but it’s on my TBR: Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead in the dance school category?

    • Yes, I read Astonish Me! Like this one, parts of it worked for me and other parts didn’t. It wasn’t a bad reading experience, but I’m guessing I won’t need to revisit.

  • Jeane Nevarez

    Thursday’s Children by Rumer Godden! …. I feel like I’ve mentioned this one to you before??

    • I LOVE THAT ONE! It’s one of my ur-texts that served to establish my devotion to ballet boarding school books. 😀

      • Jeane Nevarez

        Of course! I should have known you knew (and loved) it. Admit I haven’t read many other dance school books, but all will be held to the standard of Thursday’s Children ever after, because I read and loved that one first.

  • Samantha

    Ooh, dance school novels! Maybe you could put together a list for us? I just finished Sophie Flack’s Bunheads yesterday, which takes place in a professional dance company rather than, strictly speaking, dance school, but it still deals with so many of the same issues. And I really enjoyed it–couldn’t put it down.

  • TheShrinkette

    Your knowledge of all (reading) things Africa is duly acknowledged and I am truly impressed. Meanwhile, I have never read any Zadie Smith, but also I am wary of this complicated relationships between wild and unwild girls, so whenever I do read this book I will be proceeding with caution.

    • I was reading a review of some other book recently that talked about how many novels about female friendship have this framework of the Good One and the Transgressive One. The writer wasn’t criticizing that, and I’m not either EXACTLY, but at the same time, it’s a story I’m slightly tired of. I have seen it a lot, you know? And maybe I’m being paranoid, but I feel like it has baked in this threat of tragedy for the Transgressive One, which I also don’t like.

  • Jeanne

    I think the only book I’ve ever read about dance school is Noel Streatfeild’s Apple Bough.

    • Ahhh, Noel Streatfeild, always great value for dance school content.

    • MumsyNK

      You haven’t read Rumer Godden’s dance school books? I loved Thursday’s Children.

      • I second the Rumer Godden recommendation, especially Listen for the Nightingale

  • Kailana

    Yeah, she has never worked for me. I put her with Michael Chabon, too. I really have enjoyed his nonfiction, but none of his fiction I have ever finished or enjoyed.

    • YES EXACTLY! I nearly said Michael Chabon’s name in this review because YES EXACTLY. She and Michael Chabon are very similar that way for me — I appreciate that their writing is good, I *want* to like them, but when push comes to shove, their fiction feels more like a chore than a pleasure.

  • I am one of the people who had “dance school dance school” running through my head about this book. So, thank you. And I also had high hopes for the friendship theme. It’s not looking good. (Which it wasn’t really anyway, because of all the mixed reviews I’ve seen. I have other things to read!)
    I could probably look at that cute little duckling all day…

  • Michelle

    As far as dancing school books go, Noel Streatfield’s ‘Ballet Shoes’ is still tops. Have you read Jean Estoril’s ‘Drina’ books?

  • Lol this isn’t a book (obviously) but there’s a series called Dance Academy on Netflix that’s soooo cheesy but also very very addictively watchable

  • Aonghus Fallon

    Only guessing (and I haven’t read any Zadie Smith) but I think the paragraph you quote is an ironic acknowledgement on the part of the mc that the locals have a pretty low (if essentially benevolent) opinion of her. Prefacing it with a sentence like – ‘It was pretty obvious that – as far as they were concerned – I was a dead loss’ – probably would have helped.

  • I read one Zadie Smith novel years ago, and one book of her essays, and the combination of the two was enough to convince me that she is just not a writer I enjoy. I can’t put my finger on why, but I just don’t “get” her … if that makes sense. Oh well.

  • Duck gif best gif ever!

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    Ya know, I like Smith’s nonfiction but I have yet to manage to read any of her fiction. Reviews of this book seem to be mixed. Good work on figuring out Gambia! I am really impressed by that.

  • Alley

    I may still want to read this but thank you for the content warning cos i have a feeling I would have been disappointed in the lack of dance school ness otherwise.

  • Nishita

    I find Zadie Smith is not for me either. I want to like her, she’s obviously a good, award-winning writer, but I find her characters too meh for me to care much what happens to them.

  • This pretty much sums up the book for me too. I was just not impressed. As my first experience with Ms. Smith’s writing, I was wondering if it was just me. I didn’t like the narrator’s relationship with Tracy; I never bought into it and cannot understand why we kept coming back to Tracy. I did like the parts in Africa, expect towards the end when she self-sabotages her career. I think I totally missed the point of this entire novel, which makes me feel horrible and as if I am just another white woman of privilege that can’t relate to anything outside my own experiences.

  • Interesting review, once this is in PB I think I might have a similar experience. I’ve only read White Teeth, but I felt similarly regarding friendship in that book. It was almost like no character really liked the other.

  • What a fun review to read! You’re do entertaining and informative so well. White Teeth is the only Zadie Smith book and like Ann Patchett’s books, I loved the writing, but the plot felt a little bit lacking to me. Her writing was wonderful enough that I’d definitely be willing to give her a second chance. I’m glad to hear that there were at least parts that worked for you, even if it wasn’t as much about dance school as you’d hoped 🙂

  • Christy

    I really liked the writing of White Teeth, so I’d read Zadie Smith again, but maybe not this one. Spot on regarding weariness with wild girl / not-so-wild girl tropes in fiction. And congrats on the identification of Gambia based on your accumulating Africa knowledge!