This year, the weird 2020, I started to consciously look for books written by black authors. After reading Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and Girl, Women, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, I wanted to read a story by Zadie Smith. Swing Time was the book I found at the local English bookshop, Nautilus, so Swing Time was my pick!

Swing Time in a nutshell

Swing Time tells the story two girls who befriended at a dance class during their childhood, mainly because they were the only two brown girls there. As time passed, their friendship dissolved, but from time to time they got in contact for different reasons.

The story focuses on how their lives develop – while one of them continues to dance as professional, the other one (less talented) becomes the personal assistant of a pop star.

Overall impression

I have mixed feelings about this book, as I was a bit disappointed. On one hand, I struggled to understand what the book was really about – it touched on so many topics that it felt like a mix of themes without a clear red thread. However, this mix of themes actually kept me reading on.

The story takes place in London, New York and West Africa (most probably Gambia), and it goes backwards and forwards on the time axis. This is an aspect that increases the complexity of the reading experience, on top of the many topics tackled. I felt disoriented quite often, attempting to put together the pieces of the puzzle.

Blend of social issues

What stuck with me while reading Swing Time was that it tackled a wide variety of social issues – from discrimination and lack of integration of mixed-race people, children with parents in jail, illegal adoptions and sexual assault.

Nonetheless, not all was sad and problematic! An interesting character is the narrator’s mother, a black woman who becomes so active in the community and willing to make a change that she becomes an important politician.

When celebrities want too much to help

For my point of view, one of the most interesting insights from Swing Time is that making a real sustainable change in a community takes a lot of effort and cannot be a short-term project. The example in the book concerns a celebrity willing to help a rural community from Africa, and the chosen solution was to build a school for girls.

However, this project did not consider the most urgent needs of the local girls nor the local culture and politics. My understanding was that the aim of the project was mostly to strengthen the brand of the celebrity rather than make a real change in the community. And I can imagine that these types of “good intentions” exist also in real life, not only in novels.


To conclude, I would recommend reading Swing Time if you are into reading slow-paced books and / or books that tackle social issues at length. From my personal point of view, it is a book “simmering but not quite boiling”, as I’ve once read this quote on the blogosphere.

Have you read other books by Zadie Smith? Which one(s) would you recommend?

If you would like to buy books or other (non)bookish things, please consider using one of these links: Amazon | Waterstones | Carturesti. Thank you!

‘Till next time … happy reading!


PS: The cover of the book is amazing! Designed by grey318

7 thoughts on “Swing Time by Zadie Smith (book review) – about race, roots, and celebrity humanitarianism

  1. The only book I’ve read by Zadie Smith is On Beauty, which I really liked. But I have no way of knowing how different/similar it is to Swing Time.
    I loved Homegoing so much. I just finished reading Transcendent Kingdom – also fabulous!

    Liked by 1 person

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