Pa pa Americano.
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin)
First Published: 15th November 2016
Date Reviewed: 21st December 2016
Our nameless narrator has struggled through life, feeling in the shadow of her best friend – someone who often hates her – being uncomfortable living with a mother who, in trying to better herself, has always pressured her daughter to be someone she’s not, and working for a performer who has many demands and idealised projects. She recounts her days in these contexts and in the context of song and dance, two things that have always had their place in her life.
Swing Time is a book with a lot of promise and at times sensational writing that unfortunately doesn’t achieve much.
Smith’s writing is wonderful. She has a lot to say – though, as many have noted, too much at once this time around (the book could have done with being trimmed in the subjects department) – and in general she says it very well. Situations and characters, both good and bad, leap off the page; everything feels very real. She’s opted again for familiar settings and thoughts but she does it so well it really doesn’t matter.
In regards to that ‘in general’, there are some occasions where the writing misses the mark in ways it didn’t in Smith’s previous, NW, that look directly to current trends. Phrases needlessly hyphenated – ‘brand-new’ – and descriptions that are exactly the same as what everyone else is using right now – ‘gunmetal grey sky’ – that suggest editorial input rather than the original words. But Smith’s style is so winsome you can’t help but carry on reading.
Because this book is a page turner. The page count is daunting but Smith knows when enough is enough, using short chapters when it fits, and expanding the sections later on as the book gets to the weightier subjects. It’s a case of if you’ve liked her before you will most certainly enjoy this book no matter the flaws.
Smith hasn’t really covered any new ground with her many subjects but they remain interesting. Race is explored – being black and being mixed-race in the 1980s and beyond, the differences as time goes on. Class is explored – the narrator and her friend Tracey were born and bred on a run-down council estate and the narrator’s mother is working to often extreme lengths to prove that she’s better than that. (As such, childhood emotional and psychological problems and abuse is explored, the lectures hammered into the narrator about her ‘no good’ friend, as well as the emotional and physical abuse meted out to Tracey by her father.) The problem we have wherein famous white people go out to Africa to ‘help’ – this is something that we’re really starting to acknowledge now so whilst Smith’s text is timely she is unfortunately only regurgitating what we already know, and it’s really down to the individual reader as to whether that’s okay or not. (Smith does go a fair way here, first exploring the problem of idealisation, ‘let’s go build a school for girls because that will help… and we’ll completely neglect to look at what the residents actually need right now, including the fact the girls can’t go to school because their parents need help with the crops’. Then she looks at the absurdity of publicity that makes the western celebrity look beloved in that country whereas all the people following her vehicle are doing so because it’s a novelty. And so on – it’s regurgitation but it’s on point, ending with an exploration of money and overseas adoption.) And she looks at jealousy and the effects of childhood on mentality, personality. Of those with power and those without.
Our nameless narrator seems to have been used in order to shine a light on every other character, because the woman herself is unremarkable. She rarely has anything positive to say but then again she has had a lot of pushback – being in her head all the time it can be difficult to see when her personal problems are due to her negativity and when they are due to people putting her down, though there is a lot to be said for her childhood. But, yes, the light this allows Smith to shine on everyone else is excellent. We get to explore the impact of Tracey’s early life and choices on her growing up in a way that often provides a commentary – much more subtle than the comments about celebrity and ‘Africa’ (that’s another point, that which country is chosen is irrelevant, it’s just got to be ‘African’). Smith shows well, in the way that your thoughts of Tracey will move back and forth between pity, like, and dislike, these effects. The plight of the narrator’s mother too – her lecturing her daughter on politics, on how Tracey is below her because she, the mother, is trying to be a politician, is working on a degree when everyone else is ‘happy’ to remain where they are; her tireless work to be somebody – shows both the effects of selfishness on children and also the difficulties of social mobility. Through the mixed-race and ‘African’ characters – Smith doesn’t often repeat the name of the place celebrity Aimee makes her school, which may be a point in itself – Smith shows disparities, issues of identity, the differences in perspective, and again, that celebrity focus comes back in the form of appropriation of both culture and individual people.
‘And the dance and music?’ you may ask, ‘the swing time of the title?’ There is commentary on it, in particularly the difficulties of black Americans to gain stage and screen space, and included in this is a whole heap of information and references that have been largely skipped over by western history – this book is a resource. However, the inference of the title that this will be a book about dance is, as you will have noted by the fact I’m only just writing about it now after reams of other subjects, wrong. This book minors in dance.
On these topics it must be said the book is not at all linear. It’s not quite experimental but the narrative does dart all over the place and it can take a few lines to get your bearings each chapter because both time and location are mixed up. Why Smith chose to structure the book in this way is not clear – it does allow the subjects to be dealt with in blocks but by their very nature they are not completely confined by these blocks.
So a problem with this particular output from Smith is that she’s chosen a character who may have experienced a lot but never looks at things in a different way, never really attempts to change things, instead going along with what others tell her to do, and whilst that’s not an issue per se, it is an issue when you’ve 453 pages to spend on it with no real conclusion. The story never goes anywhere, meaning that the ending, if it can be called so, is incredibly unsatisfying. You may have enjoyed the book on the whole immensely, but the end is so incredibly disappointing that when it arrives you may feel that your previously fairly fun reading experience was for nought.
It is difficult to recommend Swing Time outright but it is equally difficult to say that this book isn’t worth reading. If the experience of reading it is of merit – as a prime example let’s use the release date of mid November, assume you got it around that time and then read it beside the Christmas tree (it’s perfect for that) – then it passes with full colours. (‘Passing’ is another subject looked at, and I know I’m going all over the place with my paragraphs; it should give you an idea of how it is to read this book!) If writing, then it’s pretty great, you will most likely be swept up by this book and find it hard to put down. If story, look elsewhere. Characters are somewhere in between.
It’s best to look at what is important to you and then combine that with the overall atmosphere, which is pretty awesome. For here I will say it’s worth a read and to really enjoy it whilst you’re deep into it because the ending is disappointing but isn’t quite bad enough to warrant it not being read.
And if that’s confusing, well, welcome to Swing Time.
January 25, 2017, 1:30 am
Hey, I read Swing Time this month too! I had complicated feelings about it — basically enjoyed it, but I also realized that Zadie Smith’s fiction is not for me, as much as I admire and like her personally and enjoy her nonfiction. OH WELL.
The problem I had with the narrator is that not only did I get a sense from her own narration of what she was about as a person, but I also feel like I got very few clues about her from the other characters. Reactions to her by the people around her were so wildly disparate, and there wasn’t anyone she much trusted, so I just didn’t know what to make of her. She ended up feeling like a cipher.
January 25, 2017, 4:43 pm
An author several of my friend have recommended. Only thing is, they can’t agree with which book I should start. Any thoughts?
January 26, 2017, 7:43 pm
Yours is the second or third review I have read in the last couple days expressing disappointment with the book. Making me rethink whether or not I want to read it!