I picked up Grand Union in the hope that I would be blown away by the powerhouse that is Zadie Smith, and so I was very excited to learn that this was her first and much awaited short story collection.
Zadie Smith is an astonishingly great writer, there is no shadow of doubt in that statement; and she always has her finger on the pulse – majestically stirring up literary gold dust in her longer forms with such works as White Teeth, On Beauty and Swing Time to name a few. Her shorter fiction has also appeared in the who’s who that celebrate this beautiful art form from Granta to The New Yorker and The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story (review here) plus many other places between – so, you’d think that this collection would be a banger of a book, but for me, unfortunately, it felt more like a wet squib – and needless to say I was hugely disappointed.
Don’t get me wrong, Smith’s writing is again meticulous and masterful, her ear for conversation is astonishingly astute and guides us perfectly into these characters and lives with ease – but for me, Grand Union was a little bit diluted and a little bit stale and it just seemed to be missing the power that Zadie Smith usually packs within her work – it seemed to feel like I’d read it all before.
If I could describe Grand Union using an example it would be this…
Grand Union is like being alone on a park bench; or watching on from a coffee stand or cafe, or bus stop, or anywhere for-that-matter where people congregate. It’s as if you could just sit there passing the time, eavesdropping on conversations, watching lives unfold around, and in front of you. Observing. Watching. Waiting. That’s what I got from Grand Union; I seemed to be waiting for something to happen. It’s an exploration into observation – for some this might just be the pinnacle of great writing, and what tickles those literary taste buds; but for me I wanted more. I didn’t want to just sit back idly and observe these lives, and these stories; I wanted to be moved by them. Enraptured within their embrace. Travel with them, and be moulded by them. I didn’t, and I don’t ever want to be a silent passenger, an omniscient being just seeing things unfold and knowing what was going to happen, before it did – I want to be dragged into mess and the action and the chaos and live through these lives that are changed – for good or for worse.
It’s my opinion however, and it will probably grate with many others who have reviewed or read this book. And that is okay, it’s what I find beautiful in art and literature, that the same works can affect people on different levels, but for me, I wanted more, and I was sadly disappointed – for others this may be the greatest short story collection they’ve ever read, and if so, brilliant. It does pain me to write such things, its never easy writing a bad review, but here at STORGY we pride ourselves on giving honest reviews – and even writing this it irks me some, as I love Zadie Smith’s work – but I cannot lie, so, I tell you as it is – this collection just fell a bit flat for me.
But all is not lost – within Grand Union I discovered one quite exquisite short story, a story that did move me, did transport me and did resonate with me on a deeper level. The story, which I found to be the standout in the collection and which I feel made this journey into Zadie Smith’s collection worthwhile after my initial disappointment was ‘Big Week‘. A brooding tale which follows the life of a disgraced cop as he stands in the wreckage of his life, wanting to move forwards but being pulled back by his past. His life is in tatters, his marriage another piece of the wreck that he stands in, his prospects heading nowhere fast, he wants to change but the world wont let him. Smith brilliantly explores the fallibility of the human condition, the self destructive nature of man and creates a story that is full of heart and soul that it makes for uncomfortable but yet urgent reading and it is truly a masterpiece which is wonderfully executed.
But does one astoundingly brilliant story make a collection worthwhile? I’ll let you decide. For me, I’m glad I read Grand Union – just to have discovered ‘Big Week’. I might not have felt that at the time, whilst I was struggling with many of the stories, but looking back now – the journey was made ever so sweeter by this offering and I wouldn’t have discovered this gem otherwise.
I think the main downfall of the collection could be due to there being no unifying theme. There are a huge mix of genres and styles that are implemented by Smith – and in doing so there doesn’t seem a set voice for her work, it doesn’t seem to really know what it is. Not that this is a problem, many single authored collections do this, and do this well – but for me, it just seemed very disordered and at times these sweeping changes seemed to dilute the stories on each turn of the page, and they became just words on a page instead of a story to be read – and as I’ve mentioned previously it felt like I’d read many of them before, there wasn’t anything new on offer (again my opinion).
A mixed bag of stories from the fabulously talented Zadie Smith – with a mixed bag like this it’s probably best you get a copy and decide for yourself.
Grand Union is published by Hamish Hamilton and is available here.
Zadie Smith is the author of the novels White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, NW and Swing Time, as well as a novella, The Embassy of Cambodia, and a collection of essays, Changing My Mind, and editor of The Book of Other People. Zadie was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2002, and was listed as one of Granta’s 20 Best Young British Novelists in 2003 and again in 2013. White Teeth won multiple awards including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Guardian First Book Award. On Beauty was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Orange Prize for Fiction, and NW was shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Zadie Smith is currently a tenured professor of fiction at New York University and a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Reviewed by Ross Jeffery
The Annihilation Radiation Short Story Competition is now open for entries.
1st Prize – £500
2nd Prize – £100
3rd Prize – £50
Closing date – 31st January 2020
Finalists will be published in ANNIHILATION RADIATION
£10 Entry Fee
For more details click here!
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