SWING TIME

Zadie Smith

New York Times bestseller
Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction

An ambitious, exuberant new novel moving from North West London to West Africa, from the multi-award-winning author of White Teeth and On Beauty

Two brown girls dream of being dancers—but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It’s a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties,

more …

New York Times bestseller
Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction

An ambitious, exuberant new novel moving from North West London to West Africa, from the multi-award-winning author of White Teeth and On Beauty

Two brown girls dream of being dancers—but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It’s a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.

Tracey makes it to the chorus line but struggles with adult life, while her friend leaves the old neighborhood behind, traveling the world as an assistant to a famous singer, Aimee, observing close up how the one percent live.

But when Aimee develops grand philanthropic ambitions, the story moves from London to West Africa, where diaspora tourists travel back in time to find their roots, young men risk their lives to escape into a different future, the women dance just like Tracey—the same twists, the same shakes—and the origins of a profound inequality are not a matter of distant history, but a present dance to the music of time.

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  • Penguin Books
  • Paperback
  • September 2017
  • 464 Pages
  • 9780143111641

Buy the Book

$17.00

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About Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith is the author of the novels White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, NW, and Swing Time, as well as a collection of essays, Changing My Mind.

Praise

Swing Time uses its extraordinary breadth and its syncopated structure to turn the issues of race and class in every direction…We finally have a big social novel nimble enough to keep all its diverse parts moving gracefully toward a vision of what really matters in this life when the music stops.”Ron Charles, Washington Post

“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…”Alexandra Schwartz, The New Yorker

Discussion Questions

1. The title, Swing Time, is a reference to the 1936 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical of the same name. How do you see the title connecting to themes throughout the book? How does it connect to the different shifts and periods of time, too?

2. The narrator tells the stories of the four other women while remaining in the background, unnamed. Even when watching Swing Time, she realizes that the dancer she watches is the shadow. Why do you think the narrator stayed unnamed? Did you trust her?

3. The book alternates between the narrator’s childhood and her adult life. How did this structure allow you to see multiple perspectives of the same situation, even though both were from the same person’s point of view?

4. There are several examples of people who wasted their life or a talent due to the circumstances of class or race. On page 159, the narrator’s mother describes the cases she witnessed and how it showed “The thousand and one ways a life can be sunk in misery almost before it’s begun.” How did these unrealized abilities and desires apply to both Tracey and the narrator?

5. On page 266, the narrator thinks, “All of these versions of Tracey were reaching across the years of the church hall to ask me a question: What are you going to do? To which we both already knew the answer. Nothing.” What did this mean to you?

6. Zadie Smith, like the narrator, is the daughter of a Jamaican mother and an Irish father, and also grew up in a housing project in England. Authors of fiction often draw on real life experiences. Does this information lend more credibility or authority for you to the telling of the story? Does it change how you perceived anything?

7. Many characters in the book are identified or defined by their race and class. Roots are also important in each place – in New York, London and the town in Africa. How do you see the definitions of race and class changing or dictating the lives of Aimee, Hawa, Tracey, and the narrator’s mother? What do you think of Hawa’s brother’s conversation about class in their community versus in New York, where he also saw contempt (278)?

8. The idea of not fitting into a specific race or class populates the book. Strangers ask if the narrator will grow up confused or question how she will choose between her parents’ cultures. The narrator feels like she is strange to both her mother and father, “a changeling belonging to neither one of them”. How does this affect the narrator? How do you think she ends up choosing between her cultures?

9. What do you think Tracey hoped people would now understand about the narrator when she sent the video and wrote, “Now people will know who you really are.”?

10. On page 438, the narrator describes the public reaction to the childhood dance video and concerns over what was considered pornographic content. The narrator then addresses the reader, or “you”: “And if you think it more than that, then who has the problem, exactly, the girls in the film-or you?” What do you think made viewers uncomfortable or guilty about watching this video? Why is “The desire to be on the side of innocence” so strong?

11. The boys on the bridge are referred to a few times, but the meaning of that situation changes for the narrator. On page 160, the narrator’s mom says, “They didn’t have a chance”. The narrator later reflects that her mom’s statement was “a sentence moving in two directions.” What did she mean by that? On page 450, the narrator leaves Fern at the tube: “I left him and chose the bridge. Ignoring both barriers, walking straight down the center, over the river, until I reached the other side.” How has the narrator’s sense of choice, and the power to choose, changed at this point? What meaning is behind this action? Where else do you see the theme, and power, of choice in the novel?

12. The narrator’s mother talks about “sankofa” when the narrator is young, she encounters it again while in Africa, and then it becomes the name of Aimee’s adopted child. How does the meaning of sankofa (the West African symbol of a bird that “looks back over itself” to retrieve what’s been lost to the past) relate to the meaning of the book overall? How does it relate to the meaning the narrator is searching for in her own life?

13. What did you think of the structure with the prologue, named parts, and epilogue? Did you reread the prologue after you finished the book?