No Joy: Swing Time

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

Last year I was one of the very last people to read Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. It was just so-so for me – I felt like I was missing a crucial connection to a book that everyone raves about.

Still, I’ve been drawn to Smith all year. If I see her name mentioned or a photo of her, I have to click to see what’s up. There’s just something about Zadie Smith.

So when I got the chance to read her new novel, Swing Time, I was up for it.


Swing Time follows the lives of two girls – their friendship begins when they are the only two brown girls in their Saturday morning dancing class. One, Tracey, has talent; the other, our unnamed narrator, does not but is an avid student of all dance. Their lives intersect throughout their childhood, until it ends suddenly in their early twenties. For the one, that friendship echoes through her adult life, while Tracey finds her way onto the stage while struggling within her adult life.

Eventually our narrator finds a job as a personal assistant to Aimee, a pop star turned icon. When Aimee turns her attentions to philanthropy in Africa, her assistant finds herself spending more time in the small village, where the rhythm of life is completely different to anything she knows.

Again, Smith is ambitious in the scope of her novel. Swing Time examines race, friendship, mothers and daughters, fame, poverty, dance, ambition and education. At times Smith’s prose is unbearably beautiful. I’m constantly in awe of her talent.


(You knew it was coming right?)

I still had a hard time connecting to this book. I feel like I should have been a wreck reading this but I just wasn’t. Like with White Teeth, there was no sense of anticipation about coming back to this book, there was no joy in the experience. It started out strong for me but ended up in so many different directions that I found it hard to hold onto anything that would make this one stand out for me.

No doubt I’m the lone voice of dissonance.

While I was reading this, I ended up listening to an old episode of Lena Dunham’s podcast, Women of the Hour. The subject of the episode was Work and who should appear as a guest? Zadie Smith. And I fell a little bit in love with her.

But still not enough to fall in love with this book.


18 thoughts on “No Joy: Swing Time

  1. I had a hard time reading White Teeth and I ended up giving up. It looks like I won’t be reading this one. I did enjoy On Beauty, but it was certainly a demanding read.

  2. Sorry you didn’t enjoy this one. I haven’t read any of Zadie Smith’s novels. None of them have really drawn me in. Hope your next read is better. 🙂

  3. I don’t think it’s just you – I’ve been seeing mixed reviews of this book around. Some have liked it, but others not as much. However, I don’t think anyone’s saying it’s terrible. It makes me wonder if I will ever pick up one of her books. The premise of this one appealed to me more than some of her others.

  4. I’ve been hesitating to read Swing Time for reasons I’m not even sure about. Thanks for your honest review. It’s a big help!

    • I always struggle writing reviews when I don’t love a book because it’s a big deal to write a book, you know? But reading because you feel you have to sucks. So if I prevent someone else from a joyless reading experience, that works for me.

  5. I recently obtained a copy of Swing Time, but have decided to put off reading it. I keep reading similar opinions, and since I haven’t read a book by Zadie Smith yet, have decided that it just might be best to start elsewhere. Thanks for your review.

  6. I’ve only read her book On Beauty, which was a rewrite of Howard’s End, and I loved the writing, but not the book. It went too fast in places and slow in others, and I was never eager to go back to it.

      • Her books are more often about admiration than adoration for me as a reader, and I feel like they require a certain mood for me (the same kind of mood in which I need to be to read, say, Michael Ondaatje and Toni Morrison). These aren’t stories with characters I feel I can connect to, even when they are often characters who are desperate to connect (the women in Swing Time were so lonely!) and I am eager to connect as a reader too. It’s not comfortable.

      • I think you just nailed it: admiration vs adoration. I can’t tell you what a relief it is for me to be able to definitively say what the issue is!
        The women in Swing Time ARE so lonely. The whole second half could have been stronger but we get nothing out of the relationship with the pop star and everything else has just kind of been abandoned.

  7. Pingback: Literary Wives: On Beauty | The Paperback Princess

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