In the short story “Sentimental Education”, Monica, a 19-year-old university student, asks her lover to flip his language around when discussing sex. She tells him: “In a matriarchy, you’d hear women boasting to their mates: ‘I subsumed him in my anus. I really made his penis disappear. I just stole it away and hid it deep inside myself until he didn’t even exist.’” The experiment doesn’t work – her lover has a hard time believing it will “catch on”. But it’s a poignant moment, one that – like many stories in this new collection by superstar author Zadie Smith – makes the reader stop in their tracks.
Grand Union is Smith’s first short-story collection, made up of both previously published and new works. In it, Smith – most well known for her 1999 hit, White Teeth – shows off her ability to traverse different genres and subjects. Here, everything is covered from Brexit to the murder of Kelso Cochrane.
At her best, Smith combines acute societal observations with nuanced, flawed characters – people we root for, even as they make mistakes and as life disappoints. In “Sentimental Education” Monica, snorting coke and about to embark on a casual, hurried and ultimately unsatisfying sexual encounter, can’t shake the “sense that this would all work better as anecdote than reality”. Or as another character puts it in “The Dialectic”: “It was hard to make life go the way you wanted.”
While sex and body parts are discussed across the board in blunt, visceral terms, Smith refuses to be drawn into rights or wrongs. Identity politics and accusations of cultural appropriation – which the British–Jamaican writer has bemoaned in the past – are treated with barely disguised contempt. In “Parents’ Morning Epiphany”, a piece that is set out like a worksheet for teaching children how to write, there is a section about dialogue. A blank speech bubble is matched with the advice: “These days it’s best to say nothing.”
Not every story in Grand Union hits the mark: some of Smith’s experiments in writing style (particularly “The Lazy River”, which focuses on boorish Brits on holiday in Spain) left me cold. And yet the biggest problem in Grand Union for me was the brevity of the short-story format. I fell fast and hard for characters such as Monica: my only wish, as we feel for someone who dies too early, is that I had longer with them.
Hamish Hamilton, 256pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 12, 2019 as "Zadie Smith, Grand Union". Subscribe here.