Book of the Month: Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Swing Time book cover

Zadie Smith has become known one of the leading chroniclers of contemporary London and her latest novel, Swing Time, has been heralded by critics as her best yet. Moving between the estates of North West London, New York and West Africa, this is a coming-of-age tale of two girls who bond through a mutual love of dance.

The narrator (whose name we never find out) and Tracey meet at the local community centre in the early 80s by attending weekly dance classes together. Tracey arrives wearing a full tutu and deep pink satin ballet shoes with long silky ribbons that crisscross around her ankles. In stark comparison, the narrator's ballet pumps are pale pink leather, resembling the underside of a cat, and instead of silk ribbons, have 'only a sad little elastic strap' sewn on by her father.

This discrepancy between their shoes serves well to reflect their childhoods; whilst the narrator is taught the perils of materialism by her parents, Tracey is showered with toys and gifts and left very much to her own devices. The two girls' dancing abilities also reveal their characters – Tracey is the naturally gifted dancer, brazen and rebellious, but our narrator is a clunky, wooden mover – shy, inward-thinking and full of self-doubt.

Despite – and perhaps because – of their differences and through their shared passion for dance, a solid bond is formed between the two girls. The dynamic and power-balance of their friendship is accepted and this holds fast until the chaos of adolescence brings unforeseen upheavals.

Swing Time follows the two girls as they grow from childhood and navigate their way into adulthood. The story unfolds through the decades with vivid descriptions of time and place, and a host of characters whose lives interweave time and time again. It's through the development of these many characters that one of the central questions of the novel arises – what is success? And is self-improvement the key to a better and happier life? The question of identity ricochets around the world as the narrator moves between London, New York and West Africa, showing it to be indiscriminate, infecting the super-rich alongside those from the townships of third-world West Africa.

As with her previous novels, Zadie Smith weaves a myriad of themes through the novel; friendship, family, politics, race and class. Its beating heart, however, is music and dance; something that transcends class, race and age.

What Mumsnetters say about Zadie's books:

“I loved Swing Time. Zadie Smith is such a fine thinker and writer, and this novel showcases her writing beautifully. And it's often funny too; definitely one of my top books for 2016.”

“I love her observations in NW. She is brilliant at creating a sense of place and the characters that are its product.”

“Every October I read On Beauty by Zadie Smith. It feels so autumnal – I love it!”

About the author

Zadie Smith profile

Zadie Smith was born in north-west London in 1975. She was listed as one of Granta's 20 Best Young British Novelists in 2003 and again in 2013. Her first novel, White Teeth, won multiple literary awards including the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Guardian First Book Award. On Beauty was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Orange Prize for Fiction 2006, and NW was shortlisted for the Baileys Prize for Fiction 2013. Zadie Smith is currently a tenured professor of fiction at New York University and lives in London and New York with her husband and two children.

Webchat

We're very excited that Zadie Smith will be joining us to discuss Swing Time for a webchat at 9pm on 2 August.

Giveaway

The giveaway is now closed. We ask all winners to take part in the author webchat on the Book of the Month discussion thread – but you don't have to win a free copy to join us!

Buy the book on Amazon for £3.85