...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 ... The grade school scenes are small masterworks of storytelling in which the child’s innocence is delicately threaded with the adult’s irony. If the style of Swing Time is less exuberant than her previous work, Smith’s attention to the grace notes of friendship is as precise as ever ... Swing Time may be the most perceptive one I’ve read about the distortion field created by fame and wealth ... Swing Time uses its extraordinary breadth and its syncopated structure to turn the issues of race and class in every direction.
Swing Time is Zadie Smith’s fifth novel and for my money her finest ... For its plot alone, Swing Time makes for truly marvellous reading ... Cinematic as it is, the novel does what only literature can and what only great literature will: forces us to assess the very vocabulary with which we speak of human experience ... Swing Time has brilliant things to say about race, class, and gender, but its most poignant comment is perhaps this. Given who we are, who we are told that we are not, and who we imagine we might become, how do we find our way home?
...the narrative cuts back and forth in time, alternating between persuasive chapters about the unnamed narrator’s memories of her childhood and adolescence, and dull, strangely generic chapters about her grown-up experiences ... The novel’s flashback chapters, set in London, possess the tactile energy and emotional detail of White Teeth. Ms. Smith conjures the electric pulse of the 1980s and 1990s ... Aimee is a complete celebrity stereotype...and the chapters that chronicle Aimee’s much publicized efforts to build a school in an unnamed African country are beyond tedious ... [a] clumsy novel — a novel that showcases its author’s formidable talents in only half its pages, while bogging down the rest of the time in formulaic and predictable storytelling.
Swing Time is a sober book, even—at times—a depressive one. It feels like the kind of book novelists write when they have come to the end of their own favorite themes and techniques. There is less of the excitement of discovery, of getting things down on paper that have not been observed before, and more of the resigned pleasure of understanding. There is less seeing, and more seeing through ... As Smith shows with delicacy and penetration, dance is a subject that cannot be entirely understood separately from race ... there is something about Swing Time that seems to undermine its own attempts at building narrative momentum. In part, this is caused by the dual time frame, which keeps the reader poised between two story lines that never quite meet ... feels like a chronicle of partial, compromised victories and foreordained defeats.
While Swing Time, is superficially smoother and more conventional than NW, it 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 ... Smith’s feeling for class is unnervingly precise ... Swing Time’s great achievement is its full-throated and embodied account of the tension between personal potential and what is actually possible.
Every once in a while, a novel reminds us of why we still need them ... It’s in Africa that the novel announces its ambitions, with unsettling scenes of power and powerlessness in close proximity ... Swing Time asks the big questions for the post-Brexit era: As the old hierarchies fall away, how do we forge our allegiances? What do we owe those left behind? Rarely has a novel felt so relevant.
Smith is wonderfully convincing in her portrait of celebrity ... Smith has clearly done her research but her critique of western aid policies in developing nations – namely, that financial aid is often ill-conceived, poorly executed and rarely sustained – is scarcely new or unexpected ... It is a novel of breadth rather than depth, which is not to say it lacks insight, far from it, but it did cause me to wonder what kind of reader Smith is writing for ... The novel’s strength lies in its unflinching portrait of friendship, driven as much by jealousy and competition as by love and loyalty.
Swing Time may not parse easily and fits no mold, but it is uncommonly full of life ... Her complex relationship with her mother is one of the novel’s most powerful subsidiary threads ... Smith’s keen satirical eye, a pleasure of her earlier work, is often in evidence where Aimee is concerned ... In some ways, these event-filled final chapters feel almost incidental, like a coda. The intense, richly imagined life of the novel vibrates most strongly elsewhere, in the moving presentation of the narrator’s primal childhood years with Tracey, and in Smith’s exhilarating portrait of village life in Gambia ... Highly ambitious, overflowing, sometimes messy, this novel resists familiar satisfactions, as it resists containment or easy categorization. This, for 'the nearest thing to life,' is a high achievement.
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.
...a multilayered tour-de-force ... 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 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 ... To be sure, there are insights to be mined from the disconnected reality of the rich and famous, particularly when Aimee and her squad embark on building a girl’s school in a small, unspecified West African country. But those perceptions pale in comparison to the visceral feeling Smith has for the workaday characters of Northwest London ... The book relies not on plot or character development but on a series of skillfully rendered passages to propel the story as it swings back and forth through time, though not necessarily with perfect rhythm.
Swing Time can rightly be called a return to the kind of fiction Smith does best and seems to enjoy most, whatever her concerns about its significance ... Some of the best chapters in the novel describe this weirdly subsidiary existence, tending to someone who inhabits a customized reality, who is both ridiculous and impressive ... To live in the syncopation between what ought to be and what is, in swing time, is to know that the latter, for all its unruliness, is always more human and often more interesting. Every once in a while, it can even be more beautiful.
It's the first novel she’s written with a single first-person narrator, and that narrator’s sullen personality has a lot to do with the novel’s melancholic cast ... Could this celebrity intervention go any way but wrong? Of course it goes wrong, and in tedious detail ... Parts of Swing Time, particularly the narrator’s account of her brief phase as a high-school goth, reach this level [of her best writing], but long stretches are marked by a joylessness previously alien to her work.
Smith has written Swing Time in the first person, and this choice allows for an easy confidence and grace that hasn’t quite been present in her fiction before ... As always, Smith writes sharply about race and class ... The Aimee chapters, with their occasional bits on celebrity or Western do-gooderism, are interesting but a little less deeply felt, a little less original. Those sections where Smith carefully, almost phenomenologically portrays what it’s like to be poor, brown, female, and ambitious are among the most brilliant she has written in her already brilliant career.
[A] note of resignation appears early in the novel, and despite the sensitivity and intelligence of what follows, it’s something the book never quite transcends ... These are two vastly different storylines, and in truth they make incongruous partners. The only clear commonality is politics ... In depicting the nuances of social division, Ms. Smith has few peers...She can be wonderfully astute and funny ... Swing Time is dotted with superb touches. Why then does the book feel so flat? The trouble is that the commentary outstrips the drama...More often Ms. Smith analyzes the music and the problems behind it. You wish she would just sing.
...the narrator is fittingly indistinct in this brilliant novel about the illusions of identity ... The women of Swing Time are case studies in the different ways people hunt for an identity ... Some writers name, organize, and contain; Smith lets contradictions bloom, in all their frightening, uneasy splendor.
As a study in rootlessness, Swing Time is often superb. There are several bravura sections: a portrait of the narrator as a young goth, her university years, and her childhood on the council estate all crackle with life. The novel loses its way slightly when it moves away from these things ... A bigger problem is that the narrator herself remains curiously unknowable ... in part Swing Time wants to be a book that asks what happens when we treat bodies as though they are things. But too often within it bodies are treated only as bodies.
The narrator’s unaffected voice masks the structural complexity of this novel, and its density. Every scene, every attribute pays off–the way, for example, the narrator’s involvement in Aimée’s goodwill project taps into her mother’s lifelong work as a community organizer ... Smith has always been smart about being funny ... Aimée is a bit of a caricature, which makes the narrator’s willingness to serve her frustrating and hampers the power of those sections of the book.
...her companionable voice will carry you for hundreds of pages ... Charity, class, and celebrity all get their turn at the helm of this elegant ship Smith has constructed ... 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.
Swing Time doesn’t have the electric jolt of WhiteTeeth’s Technicolor rhythms, but it does offer more insight—an emotional acuity that radiates through a series of small, beautifully crafted revelations. What it can’t do is make the central character come fully alive, or even feel crucial to her own narrative as the story begins to list and wander toward its shaggy end.
...[a] wise and illuminating new novel ... Smith is a master stylist, delivering revelatory sentences in prose that never once veers into showiness. Though her sentences are tasteful, Smith is always game for a pulpy plot turn...This is a soap opera for the discerning set.
Given its similarities to Smith’s earlier fictions, especially White Teeth and NW, Swing Time’s ambitions ought not surprise us, and yet, the effort Smith asks her readers to exert in penetrating this gorgeous, unwieldy novel seems new ... The narrative’s swinging movements offer a sense of how memory lies in the mind and how the stories we tell ourselves about our experiences deny or escape ordering ... In this long novel, full of exceptional scenes, sequences, and sections, Smith’s writing in the Gambian chapters is the sharpest.
Swing Time is light by design but as powerful as its predecessor, NW. Where that book vaulted a reader down the block, Swing Time carries you gently to a finish that is bloodless and brutal ... Race and gender anchor the story without being predictive ... The bleak truths that Swing Time animates are not that people buy West African babies for cash, or dance in blackface, or go on vengeful Internet sprees. These people you grow up next to and work with are your family, your lovers, your friends, and your partners. And there will be music.
As in Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn — another moving tale of tough inner-city girlhood friendship and betrayal — time and memories are fluid, leaving those who move on haunted by those who don’t ... The story Smith’s narrator tells about her long journey toward finding her own light zips along at a compelling clip. But readers may lose patience with Tracey and Aimee — colossally self-absorbed, hard-to-like people who overshadow her for most of her formative years — and question their pull on her long before she does ... Yet through it all, Swing Time is remarkably light on its feet, more entertaining than didactic.
In Smith’s lovely, elegant voice, all of the different elements she’s playing with interweave themselves seamlessly into a deceptively simple whole. The result is as intricate and beautiful as a ballet ... Smith has preserved her uncannily precise eye for the subtle distinctions of class and race that preoccupy her characters, and for the way those distinctions shift across communities; that skill is on full display here ... The result is a terrific book from one of our greatest novelists.
...[a] mesmerizing novel ... Easily enough understood on their own, these episodes are arranged with disjointedness that increasingly nags ... [Smith] knows how to take us to the brink of these pleasures before undercutting or deflating them, making us realize that our own desire for narrative fulfillment is as naive a function of privilege ... there are compensatory pleasures in the sheer scope [of] Smith's ideas and her audacity in playing them out.
In a first-person twist on her buoyant, bustling London narratives, Smith examines the trouble of combining the personal and political, and captures the thrills of girlhood, dance, and first friendship.
Swing Time is shrewd with the question of how much of our self-perspective can be attributed to racial history, parental pressure and peers ... X’s mother is the most well-rounded character in the book, as Smith paints a vivid picture of her personality and zealous aspirations with scalpel-like precision ... it’s never clear where Smith wants to take her. X is a spectator through which the writer elucidates her views on charity, poverty, racism and media. But even in the end, there is little movement or resolution for X ... It may lack the verve and exuberant wit of White Teeth but that won’t diminish the book’s impact.
...[a] remarkable new novel ... A reader might grow restless in some of the Aimee sections, as the narrator does the pop star's bidding but rarely exerts any will of her own, but stay patient. Smith gradually reveals her grand design. 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 ... This rich, compelling novel will convince anyone who witnesses it of Smith's enormous talent.
Swing Time is the work of a writer whose fancy verbal footwork allows her to change partners often. There is a big supporting cast. Most vivid: the narrator’s driven mother, who becomes an activist politician; a poor but educated young African man trying to better himself; and the charismatic but narcissistic Aimee and her entourage. However, Tracey may be the most fascinating persona, and least predictable.
...gets away with being unabashedly gossipy by also being 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.
Aimee is too sketchy a character but the richness of Swing Time lies in Ms. Smith’s spot-on descriptions ... Equally powerful is her nuanced depiction of race and its role in her characters’ fates ... As Swing Time vividly dramatizes, it’s hard to locate one’s preferred associations, but it can be even harder to glide and twirl past their imperfections.
Smith’s novel swings time between the narrator’s formative years in London and her current challenges in Africa; the bridge connecting them isn’t always apparent. It doesn’t help that the African chapters aren’t nearly as compelling as those spent in London; while Smith tries to avoid creating another morality tale involving the limits of feel-good philanthropy, her African characters aren’t sufficiently fleshed out ... to an even greater extent than with NW, history in this often dark book hurts too much.
...a magnificent, mature novel ... The most noticeable thing about Swing Time, at least for a longtime reader of Smith’s work, is how much of it defies the old writing workshop adage?—?it tells as often as, if not more than, it shows. Paragraphs can last up to a page in length, the narration is first person, and there is a Jamesian quality to some of the sentences that is unexpected for Smith, who is an excellent wordsmith and always has been but who has tended to give her characters voice through their words more often than through their internal narration. All of which is to say that Swing Time is surprising?—?not that it is anything less than excellent.
...[Smith] doesn’t meticulously document London’s diversity, instead she invites readers into her mind. Her commentary on race is sharp because it’s simply observational ... As a reader, this was the most disappointing part of the book — despite her obsession with the carefully choreographed steps of Fred Astaire and Ginger Roberts, the narrator appears to just float, unattached to anything through time. But Smith makes up for this with her tendency to casually sprinkle wisdom throughout the book ... The plot itself isn’t what will keep you thinking about the book — it’s the puzzles Smith has laid out that readers will keep returning to.
...her most recent work is in many ways her strongest...She revisits familiar themes from her previous books—multicultural society, family, race, identity—but her convictions are stronger and her scope wider ... Ms Smith’s strength is her capacity for linking the local, the global and the personal ... Ms Smith has written 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.
[Showcases Smith's] ... trademark wit and elegance ... The chapters in Africa are overlong and lack the satisfying details and precise observations of Smith’s London. As ever, the beauty of Smith’s work is in the grace and empathy with which she crafts her characters ... It’s this tenderness that makes the narrator’s mother one of the most endearing and vivid characters of Smith’s fiction.
The narrator's wry voice, mostly sharply self-aware but occasionally painfully not so, is just one of the strengths of Swing Time. Smith creates a large cast of convincing, vivid characters and moves them through a plot that finally partners the two timelines of the narrator's life, bringing all those dancing shadows together. It's a story that's surprising, sometimes shocking, but filled with energy and grace.
...a brutally honest and brutally written tale that pulls and pushes the reader between continents with a feminist, black diasporic gaze ... It’s difficult to summarize Swing Time, but it stands out for being that rare work to successfully take on the romantic yet troubling notion of having a friend who knows you better than you know yourself ... you may witness a woman dancing on a balcony or among Mandinka women or on a stage, but it doesn’t mean she’s yours. That Swing Time dares to say as much, while offering up an intimacy so rarely found in storytelling of any sort, is reason enough to celebrate this bold and singular story.
...[a] virtuoso new novel ... The novel explores the lifelong relationship – a complicated mix of love, jealousy, competition, and misunderstanding – along with race, cultural appropriation, what it means to be a strong woman, and the careless side effects of celebrity do-gooderism. But it does it all with the élan of one of the 1930s hoofers that Tracey and the narrator obsessively watch on VHS tapes.
...rich characters, complex relationships, and beautiful truths about the passage of time ... The alternating time periods have distinct concerns, but the narrator’s sharp observations and keen voice easily slides between them, distilling a consciousness that mesmerizes with passages of confession, of memory, and of working through the mess of growing up and living life ... Swing Time is not necessarily about race and class, but these politics inform every aspect of the characters’ lives. Smith handles these points with subtlety, never veering into cliché or laziness. The characters are not reduced to their demographic markers, but rather are complex people who do not deny the ways race and class and gender influence their lives ... a capacious novel: childhood, London, career woes, New York, family and friendship, West Africa, how we change over time. It contains passages of psychological and emotional insight, and it is a joy to read.
Our protagonist here is so nebulous she becomes an idea for the reader to grasp at and attempt to put together, like a puzzle made of stardust, but once the reader finishes the puzzle they’re left with a sparkling cloud reminiscent of nothing ... The narrator’s identity is likewise composed in opposition to the women she at once reveres and resents for their ability to expand in areas she can never quite inhabit. This, albeit an interesting play on readers’ expectations, also serves as the book’s biggest flaw; this nameless character is hard to pin down and, at points, inconsistent with the woman we’ve barely come to know ... For a large majority of the novel, the narrator exists in juxtaposition to Tracy, yet Tracy dominates every scene she appears in. I get the distinct feeling that this effect was deliberate, but it leaves the narrator almost totally undefined, making it harder for the reader to understand her ... Ultimately, while Swing Time makes admirable artistic choices — who doesn’t love a nonlinear narrative? — the main issue I take with this novel has to do with how these choices don’t mesh well to create the relevant masterpiece it could have been.
...an admirable if not page-turning story ... It’s when the narrator arrives in Africa that the prose, and the narrator herself, pick up steam ... But though the writing here is sophisticated and competent, it lacks a bit of the joy of those earlier books. Part of this may come from the choice to have the narrator look back at her life from the distance of time. But it’s also the case that Swing Time insists on taking itself completely seriously. Like the narrator’s mother, it has no time for humor and frivolity ... Swing Time is an engaging book, and worth reading for its critical eye on wealthy, Western assumptions about the world. But unlike the Fred Astaire musicals the narrator loves so much, the novel isn’t quite fun, and it is poorer for that.
...this lack of identity reads radically (not to mention, at present, heretically). Our narrator seems to reflect an under-politicized demo: that kind of person who does not hew to the identities that so many around us embrace, who is steered to lonely conclusions about herself; that she is resistant, impermeable somehow ... As ambitious as this thread feels, the scenes onsite in West Africa are oddly flat. This has less to do with illustrating the paradoxes of aid and pretty much everything to do with Aimee, whose character feels like a mistake ... The novel feels most purposeful when our narrator looks searchingly upon the certainty of others — their sureness of the inextricability of what and who they are; and as it compares her vagueness to their conviction; her sparseness to their fullness.
Swing Time broke the mold in some interesting ways, and managed to make the life story of a rather boring person quite entertaining ... the narrator’s own story never eclipses those of the more interesting people she is always attached to, and thus the personal revelations that should be the cornerstones of the novel feel like diversions from the Tales of Tracey and Aimee. Swing Time never amounts to more than the sum of its parts, but those parts are well-written and a worthwhile read.
Swing Time, like her previous four novels, showcases her keen ability to examine a character’s psychological landscape while interrogating a cultural moment ... Though the jacket copy calls it 'exuberant,' to me it felt careful, wistful, resigned—punctuated by periods of 'kinetic joy' that come, most often, through dance ... Swing Time is a novel that pours out, unrestrained yet delicately woven, like memory.