"Grand Union: Stories" by Zadie Smith. AP
Zadie Smith, the author of White Teeth, has been writing short stories since she was at university, but “Grand Union, ” a collection of 19 stories, is the first published collection in that format. Smith’s dialogue crackles with mordant wit – “you turn everything into a funeral” an adolescent girl says to her mother in the opening story “The Dialectic” – and even minor characters are dissected with great skill. A “pissy” sales assistant in the tale “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets”, “moved with an angry slouch, like a prisoner”. Everything has “stopped making sense” for the outdated Miss Adele, who is sick of millennial. She mocks twin brother Devin for his “three-kids-and-a-labradoodle, don’t-panic-it’s-organic” existence. Even when the subject matter is bleak, Smith is fun to read.
“Big Week”, about a disgraced American cop called Mike McRae, captures the poignant truth of this flawed man through the insights offered in a piercing short finale to the story. In a moving segment, 56-year-old Marie reflects on bringing up a family and why she did not settle anymore for living with her ex-husband. “Time began to cautiously reshape itself around her broken body, and she found she wanted to be alone with it once more,” writes Smith. In “Words and Music”, two old dames are “long freed of useless men”.
Smith casts a humorous and unsentimental eye on characters throughout ‘Grand Union.’ Middle-aged dread seeps into “Sentimental Education”. “Next stop Canonbury. Next stop menopause and no more denim,” Monica thinks to herself while on a train journey. The special wit in Smith’s writing is that she makes the end of denim the point of no return. She is an author who is in tune with the melancholy of modern life, whether that is through young adults owing vast sums in student loans, or the “general malaise” of people addicted to “exhausting” social media.
The memorable “The Lazy River” slices through the Brexit mess (“that bad-faith moon of 2017”) in one biting, amusing story about the class divisions revealed on a package holiday to Spain. The minority, who warn their children off the endless chips and who apply the highest-possible factor of suncream, are swimming against the current. But they are not immune from Smith’s droll mockery. “Even in the water they like to maintain certain distinctions. They will not do the Macarena,” the narrator notes.
Londoner Smith always writes interestingly about her home city and in the deceptively simple final story, “Grand Union”, which is only around 930 words long, she explores family emotions against the backdrop of a canal near Ladbroke Grove.
The saddest tale is “Kelso Deconstructed”. Smith’s mother Yvonne reminded the author about the real-life murder of Antiguan immigrant Kelso Cochrane, who was 32 when he was knifed by drunk white youths in Notting Hill in May 1959. They were out to make trouble for “spades”. The account of Kelso’s final day, which ends at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, is delicate and mournful.
“Kelso had no final thoughts,” writes Smith. This dazzling collection of stories will leave you with plenty to think about.
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