Book review

A new Zadie Smith, a new set of difficulties in reading, a new pleasure

Swing Time challenges readers of classic novels, and is all the more rewarding for that reason.

“The baby was surrounded by love. It’s a question of what love gives you the right to do.”

Zadie Smith’s latest novel Swing Time is about two young girls, Tracey and a nameless narrator, who live in council housing of 1980s London. These young girls are of mixed parentage, born into different shades of brown as a result. The girls met in dance school. They are not exactly social misfits but are not entirely accepted by their classmates, as is apparent when they get invited to Lily Bingham’s tenth birthday party. The two girls are completely out of their depth, as are their mothers, who are clueless on how to guide the youngsters.

“Was it the kind of thing where you dropped your kid off? Or was she, as the mum, expected to come into the house? The invitation said a trip to the cinema – but who’d pay for this ticket? The guest or the house? Did you have to take a gift? What kind of gift were we getting?…It was as if the party was taking in some bewildering foreign land, rather than a three-minute walk away, in a house on the other side of the park.”

Swing Time is narrated in first person bringing to the story an intimacy, a close involvement between the reader and narrator, which would be missing if the story had been told in the third person. This closeness between narrator and reader helps particularly if the novel is read as a bildungsroman.

The firm childhood friendship between the narrator and Tracey seems to wither away in adulthood. Yet the narrator’s flashbacks focus inevitably on the time she spent growing up in Thatcherite London with Tracey, experiences that inform her adult life. This emphasises the quality of “shared history”, an important aspect of friendships – a characteristic trait of Smith’s fiction – to the writer.

The story gathers pace once the billionaire singer, Aimee, hires the narrator as one of her personal assistants. The storytelling pace matches the heady life of the superstar who flits through her life juggling with various roles, including those of mother, performer, musician, and philanthropist (doing “good work” in Africa by sponsoring schools).

No easy read

Trying to read Swing Time in the traditional manner is an excruciating task. The sentences are structured unpredictably – sometimes running on in Jamesian style for pages on end in single, uninterrupted paragraphs. The swift shifts in tone from meditative introspection to commentary and then sharp judgement can be disconcerting. But if you drop the pre-set expectation of what the book should deliver, to think of it as a novel written by an artist and a mother, it suddenly transforms into a readable novel. It is more about an artist’s being a successful professional while managing her time as a mother.

Here, for instance, is the narrator talking about her mother who puts herself through college while her daughter is still in school. Later, the mother becomes a prominent politician.

“Oh, it’s very nice and rational and respectable to say that a woman has every right to life, to her ambitions, to her needs, and so on – it’s what I’ve always demanded myself – but as a child, no, the truth is it’s a war of attrition, rationality doesn’t come into it, not one bit, all you want from your mother is that she once and for all admit that she is your mother and only your mother, and that her battle with the rest of life is over. She has to lay down her arms and come to you. And if she doesn’t do it, then it’s really a war, and it was a war between my mother and me. Only as an adult did I come to truly admire her – especially in the last, painful years of her life – for all that she had done to claw some space in this world for herself. When I was young her refusal to submit to me confused and wounded me, especially as I felt none of the usual reasons of refusal applied. I was her only child and she had no job – not back then – and she hardly spoke to the rest of the family. As far as I was concerned, she had nothing but time. Yet still I couldn’t get her complete submission! My earliest sense of her was of a woman plotting an escape, from me, from the very role of motherhood.”

There are portraits, references and pithy observations on mothering or the relationship between mothers and children. There are the mothers of the two girls – Tracey and the narrator, the grandmothers in the family compound of African schoolteacher Hawa, the mothers of the African school children, Aimee and her children and Tracey and her brood. In some senses this novel, with its brimming cultural references, especially to the recent past, also becomes a record of events for the generation of Smith’s children.

Can mothers write?

In June 2013, Smith along with Amerian novelist Jane Smiley, objected to the suggestion made by journalist and author Lauren Sandler that they should restrict the size of their families if they want to avoid limiting their careers. Writing in The Guardian, Zadie Smith said, “I have two children. Dickens had 10 – I think Tolstoy did, too. Did anyone for one moment worry that those men were becoming too fatherish to be writeresque? Does the fact that Heidi Julavits, Nikita Lalwani, Nicole Krauss, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vendela Vida, Curtis Sittenfeld, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison and so on and so forth (I could really go on all day with that list) have multiple children make them lesser writers?” said Smith. “Are four children a problem for the writer Michael Chabon – or just for his wife, the writer Ayelet Waldman?” Smith added that the real threat “to all women’s freedom is the issue of time, which is the same problem whether you are a writer, factory worker or nurse”. A sentiment echoed in Swing Time when she writes: “The fundamental skill of all mothers [is] the management of time.”

Despite the acrimony and occasional distancing in their relationships, it is Tracey’s fierce love for her children that the narrator learns to appreciate.

“She was right above me, on her balcony, in a dressing gown and slippers, her hands in the air, turning, turning, her children around her, everybody dancing.”

Swing Time is mesmerising, if at times a challenging read. Read it as the portrait of an artist and a mother.

Swing Time, Zadie Smith, Hamish Hamilton.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

The ordeal of choosing the right data pack for your connectivity needs

"Your data has been activated." <10 seconds later> "You have crossed your data limit."

The internet is an amazing space where you can watch a donkey playing football while simultaneously looking up whether the mole on your elbow is a symptom of a terminal diseases. It’s as busy as it’s big with at least 2.96 billion pages in the indexed web and over 40,000 Google search queries processed every second. If you have access to this vast expanse of information through your mobile, then you’re probably on something known as a data plan.

However, data plans or data packs are a lot like prescription pills. You need to go through a barrage of perplexing words to understand what they really do. Not to mention the call from the telecom company rattling on at 400 words per minute about a life-changing data pack which is as undecipherable as reading a doctor’s handwriting on the prescription. On top of it all, most data packs expect you to solve complex algorithms on permutations to figure out which one is the right one.


Even the most sophisticated and evolved beings of the digital era would agree that choosing a data pack is a lot like getting stuck on a seesaw, struggling to find the right balance between getting the most out of your data and not paying for more than you need. Running out of data is frustrating, but losing the data that you paid for but couldn’t use during a busy month is outright infuriating. Shouldn’t your unused data be rolled over to the next month?

You peruse the advice available online on how to go about choosing the right data pack, most of which talks about understanding your own data usage. Armed with wisdom, you escape to your mind palace, Sherlock style, and review your access to Wifi zones, the size of the websites you regularly visit, the number of emails you send and receive, even the number of cat videos you watch. You somehow manage to figure out your daily usage which you multiply by 30 and there it is. All you need to do now is find the appropriate data pack.

Promptly ignoring the above calculations, you fall for unlimited data plans with an “all you can eat” buffet style data offering. You immediately text a code to the telecom company to activate this portal to unlimited video calls, selfies, instastories, snapchats – sky is the limit. You tell all your friends and colleagues about the genius new plan you have and how you’ve been watching funny sloth videos on YouTube all day, well, because you CAN!


Alas, after a day of reign, you realise that your phone has run out of data. Anyone who has suffered the terms and conditions of unlimited data packs knows the importance of reading the fine print before committing yourself to one. Some plans place limits on video quality to 480p on mobile phones, some limit the speed after reaching a mark mentioned in the fine print. Is it too much to ask for a plan that lets us binge on our favourite shows on Amazon Prime, unconditionally?

You find yourself stuck in an endless loop of estimating your data usage, figuring out how you crossed your data limit and arguing with customer care about your sky-high phone bill. Exasperated, you somehow muster up the strength to do it all over again and decide to browse for more data packs. Regrettably, the website wont load on your mobile because of expired data.


Getting the right data plan shouldn’t be this complicated a decision. Instead of getting confused by the numerous offers, focus on your usage and guide yourself out of the maze by having a clear idea of what you want. And if all you want is to enjoy unlimited calls with friends and uninterrupted Snapchat, then you know exactly what to look for in a plan.


The Airtel Postpaid at Rs. 499 comes closest to a plan that is up front with its offerings, making it easy to choose exactly what you need. One of the best-selling Airtel Postpaid plans, the Rs. 499 pack offers 40 GB 3G/4G data that you can carry forward to the next bill cycle if unused. The pack also offers a one year subscription to Amazon Prime on the Airtel TV app.

So, next time, don’t let your frustration get the better of you. Click here to find a plan that’s right for you.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Airtel and not by the Scroll editorial team.