(Claire Messud’s article article appeared in the New York Review of Books, 12/8.)

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Penguin, 453 pp., $27.00

“I feel dance has something to tell me about what I do,” Zadie Smith wrote in a recent article in The Guardian. She cites the dancer Martha Graham’s advice as useful for her writerly self:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique…. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

Her new novel, Swing Time, is both about dancers and, on some level, a dance itself, syncopated, unexpected, and vital. There is a moment late in the novel when the narrator (mysteriously unnamed, for well over four hundred pages) joins in a dance with a group of village women in Gambia:

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