As a Zadie Smith-mega fan, I had really high hopes for her latest book, Grand Union, and while I hate to say it, I don’t think it quite lived up to expectations.
Grand Union is a book which combines some of Smith’s most loved short stories, along with ten new, unseen ones. Exploring a wide range of subjects, from life for the middle age, to Brexit Britain, cancel culture and drug abuse in post-Trump America, this collection of short stories is wildly topical and will leave you with an uneasy feeling about what is to come in our contemporary.
I have seen many mixed reviews about this book. While I agree that there are both triumphs and failures to Grand Union, I do think it’s necessary to keep in mind that Zadie Smith is no longer the same writer she was in her 20s, and constantly comparing her recent works to White Teeth actually proves to be very unhelpful in discussing their individual impact.
In Literary Friction's 'City of Voices with Zadie Smith' podcast, Zadie Smith notes that she is driven by voices in her head, which compel her to write her work. When she hears a voice in her head, she writes it down. I think this is very clear from this group of short stories, which were not written in anticipation of becoming a collective.
While this makes for an interesting study of writing processes and narrative forms, it actually made for a rather incongruous read resembling a stream of consciousness, rather than a complete body of work. Although I don’t believe a collection of short stories has to address the same themes, or include the same people or feelings, I feel there needs to be some form of glue that holds them altogether. It is this which I thought was lacking in Grand Union.
The stories require the reader to quickly adapt to different locations, scenarios, themes and characters. As such, I don’t recommend reading this book in one sitting: each requires undivided attention from its reader. There are lots of postmodernist elements thrown into the mix and no real linear plot per se. The book must therefore be set within a wider picture, to avoid seeming fragmented or overly self-reflective. Some may find this refreshing and indeed such devices work well in being able to present our very chaotic contemporary, but it does run the risk of lacking momentum or direction. As a result, Grand Union came across as more of an academic piece to be studied, and less of a book for the casual reader.
Of the entire collection, ‘Parents’ Morning Epiphany’, ‘Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets’ and ‘Kelso Deconstructed’ were my definite favourites. ‘Parents’ Morning Epiphany’ is a story about narrative techniques in a way that might be explained to a child, but is really a mediation of life presented in a humorous and relatable way. I liked this one in particular for its comedic element. The other two of my favourites, ‘Kelso Deconstructed’ and ‘Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets’ I enjoyed because they felt like the most complete and story-like out of the short stories I read in this collection.
Grand Union is an eclectic mix of stories and vibrantly depicts Smith’s flexibility as a writer who is able to tackle a whole host of different themes and issues. Undoubtedly, there will be some you like more than others, but that is often the case with short stories. What cannot be disputed is Smith’s flare for writing captivating prose. Lovers of Zadie should give this a go, but if you are new to Smith and are wanting to get into her writing, I would suggest that her novels are a better place to start. There were some short stories I loved and also some that proved to be a bit of a miss but since I have to judge the book as an entire collection, I would have to give it a rating of 6.5/10.