59 pages 1 hour read

Zadie Smith

Swing Time

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2016

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Summary and Study Guide


Swing Time (2016) is renowned author Zadie Smith’s fifth novel. Inspired by classic movie musicals and Smith’s childhood passion for musical theater, Swing Time is a story about women, how forms of privilege warp our worldviews, and the ways in which history informs our present. The novel is divided into seven parts, each narrated by the same unnamed protagonist sometimes as a child and sometimes as an adult.

One of the most respected literary voices of contemporary literature, Smith is a Royal Society of Literature fellow, recipient of numerous awards for her writing, and a New York Times bestselling author. Her novels explore issues of race and culture in contemporary society and are often inspired by classic literature, which she adapts and interprets for her themes.

Content Warning: The novel depicts sexual harassment, sexual assault, and the usage of racial slurs.

Plot Summary

After the nameless narrator is fired from her job and publicly disgraced, she returns to England. There, she remembers her childhood.

As a child, the narrator is friends with Tracey; both girls have Black and white ancestry and grow up in project housing. They are captivated by dance, though only Tracey excels in Miss Isabel’s dance classes, where the girls first meet. The girls live different home lives. Tracey lives with her mother, who spoils her with toys they can’t afford. Tracey’s father is largely absent from her life, though she likes to pretend that he’s away dancing with Michael Jackson. The narrator’s mother is ambitious and intellectual, and her father is a devoted family man. Despite their differences, Tracey and the narrator develop a deep friendship, and Tracey even transfers to the narrator’s school. While they learn about dance, race consciousness, and the bizarre lives of adults, the narrator’s parents fight over her mother’s intellectual snobbery and her dismissive attitude to her husband’s opinions or cognitive abilities.

As the girls get older, they struggle to understand their identities and lives. The more sexually precocious Tracey becomes the star of a game that boys play at school in which they chase girls and molest them. At a birthday party for Lily, a richer white girl, Tracey and the narrator wear Lily’s mother’s lingerie and perform a provocative dance. Tracey can no longer pretend that her father is a glamorous dancer because the reality is that he is in and out of prison. His incarceration makes Tracey withdraw from school and friendships. The narrator becomes better friends with Lily but is put off by Lily’s rejection of films with an all-Black cast.

At age 22, the narrator works for YTV, a music media television channel. She has fallen out of touch with Tracey. At her job, she meets beloved mega-pop star Aimee, who hires the narrator as her personal assistant. By age 30, the narrator’s life is completely dedicated to Aimee, who includes the narrator in a major publicity stunt: Her entourage will build a school in Gambia. This trip offers the narrator a chance to see a new country and work with her mother, who is now divorced from her father, an elected official, and in a relationship with a woman.

The narrative flashes back to the narrator as a pre-teen and teenager. Tracey and the narrator drift apart as Tracey becomes increasingly sexualized at school, withdrawing from the narrator due to emotional difficulties with her father’s incarceration. The narrator’s mother breaks up with her father, but the family continues to live together in the same apartment. Tracey successfully auditions for a performing arts high school, but gets into more and more trouble in her teenage years, while the narrator searches for less risky ways to rebel.

By the time the narrator is 32, the school in Gambia has become her primary responsibility. In Gambia, the narrator’s sense of privilege is challenged; she searches for her own Blackness as she observes Aimee appropriate African culture for fame. Aimee starts a relationship with Lamin, a Gambian schoolteacher and dancer, and arranges a visa for him to move to the United Kingdom. This act is offensive to the narrator—yet another way Aimee seeks to control Black people and use them as props. The final straw is Aimee’s adoption of a Gambian newborn, which the narrator sees as inappropriate, inauthentic, and cruel to the baby. When Aimee fires the narrator for starting a relationship with Lamin, the narrator publicly exposes Aimee as a cultural appropriator.

The narrator’s mother has become a well-respected politician in London but is dying of cancer. Tracey, who has given up dancing to care for her three children, sends abusive e-mails to the narrator’s mother accusing her of being part of an oppressive system. As the now jobless narrator takes care of her mother, she attempts to convince Tracey to stop the e-mail attacks. After the narrator’s mother dies, the narrator gives up on Tracey, who seems unrecognizable. The novel ends with the narrator’s hope for the next chapter of her life to be meaningful and autonomous.