Book Review for “Grand Union: Stories” by Zadie Smith.
Summary: “Zadie Smith has established herself as one of the most iconic, critically-respected, and popular writers of her generation. In her first short story collection, she combines her power of observation and inimitable voice to mine the fraught and complex experience of life in the modern world. With ten extraordinary new stories complemented by a selection of her most lauded pieces for The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Granta, GRAND UNION explores a wide range of subjects, from first loves to cultural despair, as well as the desire to be the subject of your own experience. In captivating prose, she contends with race, class, relationships, and gender roles in a world that feels increasingly divided.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Women, Fiction; Settings: Contemporary (mostly); Various locations; Other Categories: Short Stories, #OwnVoices, Diverse Authors, LGBTQIA+.
Over the past years, I’ve asked for at least three Zadie Smith ARCs and it seems her publishers don’t like me for some reason. But I knew that the day would come when I would finally read something by her, since I’ve been intrigued by the reviews I’ve seen on other blogs. Little did I know that I would come across this book, sitting on the shelf of my little free, public library, just waiting for me to grab up. And that’s exactly what I did! (Remember, I live in a non-English speaking country, so obviously there aren’t going to be a whole lot of books in English on these shelves. More importantly, the ones that are in English are either pulp fiction, books in genres I’d never read, or old novels and classics that someone had to read for an English lit class in school. So, you can imagine my surprise at finding this one.)
So, I finally got to read some Zadie Smith. Remember, I’ve always said that a really good short story is a joy to behold. I’ve also often said that this is a harder form to write than a novel, since you need to show much more than tell, and you need to be concise. Obviously, not every author can do that, and that’s fine (for example, I didn’t find Joanne Harris’ short stories to be anywhere near as good as her novels), so I do have to keep this in mind regarding future reading of Smith’s work. All that said, here are the stories included:
- The Dialectic
- Sentimental Education
- The Lazy River
- Words and Music
- Just Right
- Parents’ Morning Epiphany
- Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets
- Escape From New York
- Big Week
- Meet the President!
- Two Men Arrive in a Village
- Kelso Deconstructed
- The Canker
- For the King
- Now More Than Ever
- Grand Union
The first thing I noticed about these stories is how very eclectic the collection seems. For example, most of them are very literary works, almost all contemporary pieces. But then there are ones like “Blocked” which was more speculative fiction, in that it seems to be about some kind of deity or power who is having problems with the why they constructed the earth. The story also seems to suggest that there are other parallel worlds out there. I’m not really sure how I felt about that story, or any of the others that were more speculative than literary. However, I can’t say that they weren’t well written, because they all were.
Invariably, the most powerful of these stories spoke about the issues surrounding being a person of color, and most powerfully in Kelso Deconstructed. The biggest exception being the story Escape from New York which is about just that – a group of people trying to escape the city. Now, it doesn’t say this is about 9/11 but I think I wouldn’t be alone in assuming that this was the inspiration for this story. In it, Smith brings a group of relatively privileged people together, who are essentially desperate to run away from what they believe to be more attacks. This story really is a type of social commentary, and I also saw it as a bit of a metaphor for what privilege can cause people to do when they’re afraid of something. Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets is another story I really enjoyed, but this one didn’t seem to focus on race, but instead more on gender, and petty prejudice against trans people.
Overall, I think this was an interesting collection, and although not all of these stories worked for me, on the whole, I can see where I’d really like to read more of Smith’s work. I’m thinking that her novels might be more well-rounded and focused, as this collection didn’t feel all that cohesive to me. Obviously, I shouldn’t have expected that once I realized that many of these stories had been published in magazines, and weren’t, therefore, written for this book. I can certainly recommend this book (why would someone just give it away like that. I’m keeping my copy), and I think it deserves a very healthy four out of five stars.
“Grand Union: Stories” by Zadie Smith is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, The Book Depository UK and US (free worldwide delivery), Foyles, Waterstones, WHSmith, Wordery UK and US, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, Booksamillion.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you.