Acclaimed author Zadie Smith’s “Grand Union” is an enchanting collection that examines the complexity of contemporary life. This book of short stories, the author’s first, refuses to define itself as any one thing. Instead, Smith allows each story to take on a tone, genre and life of its own.
The book moves between narrative-driven stories and unique experimental pieces. In one, Smith takes readers on a journey through a metaphor masquerading as a lazy river. In another, she dissects a child’s “Narrative Techniques” worksheet in a way that will make readers begin to see meaning in places they never before thought to look.
In others still, readers meet a drag queen fighting for equal treatment inside a corset emporium, a couple in the throes of an addiction-triggered divorce, a jaded family watching the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and a train rider who contemplates the way headphones allow people to turn themselves off to the world.
The stories can be heavy, yet they also take on a tone of slight whimsy that makes them feel both real and fantastical all at once, the same way that these days, reality so often feels.
Throughout the book, there are moments when Smith seems to be talking directly to the readers, letting them know, for example, when she is using devices like metaphor or dramatic irony. While for some writers this tactic could risk a jarring effect, in Smith’s hands it feels appropriately playful and seems to create more intimacy between her and the readers. It’s as if she is reminding readers that she knows they are there, that the book is a conversation, that amid all of the real chaos and struggle that her stories reference, we’re in this together.
At times, this wild ride that Smith takes readers on is a delight to experience. Her characters are vivid and unique, as are her observations about the state of the world. At other times, the stories can get complex, and it’s not always easy to grasp their meaning. Still, it’s well worth spending time with Smith, examining and dissecting the way things are, the way things were and the way things could become.
“Grand Union: Stories,” by Zadie Smith, 2019, Penguin, 256 pages. — (AP)