Grand Union

Zadie Smith

Hamish Hamilton, £20

Review by Malcolm Forbes

Zadie Smith’s 2016 novel, Swing Time, spanned decades, crossed continents, traced the jagged trajectory of an on-off friendship and explored race, class, gender and the dynamics of dance. Organised chaos replaced the unchecked boisterousness of White Teeth. The streamlined narrative and global reach stood in stark contrast to the episodic lopsidedness and localised lives of NW. It was arguably Smith’s most mature work to date.

What long-form fictive feats Smith performs next is anyone’s guess as a new novel has yet to materialise. In the meantime, though, Smith’s publishers continue to show off her other literary talents. Last year saw the release of Feel Free, her second collection of essays. Now comes Grand Union, her first collection of short stories. The book is not a quick-fix stopgap to tide over readers holding out for something more substantial; instead it is a set of sharp, savvy tales which juggles genres, brims with vitality and lays bare hearts and minds.

One of the standout stories is the beguilingly titled “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets”. Like many in the collection it plays out in New York and puts a forceful character centre stage. On a freezing day, a middle-aged drag queen braves the elements and trawls Manhattan in search of a new corset. She is jaded (“When did the effort start outweighing the pleasure?”) and faded (“no longer beautiful, her opinions were all she had”). Those opinions, along with various observations, bring her surroundings into focus. They also help highlight her flaws and no-nonsense attitude. The latter is fully exposed when she enters Clinton Corset Emporium and comes in contact with – and then up against – the equally larger-than-life proprietors who deny her the attention she craves and the respect she deserves.

“Sentimental Education” is a return to Smith’s native land. Having already channelled EM Forster for her third novel On Beauty, Smith’s appropriation of a Flaubert title leads us to believe this might also be a revamped, if condensed, update of his novel. In actual fact it is both a potent account of hedonistic youth and a poignant meditation on lost time. Monica, a young mother, heads back down memory lane, recalling her no-holds-barred relationship with fellow student Darryl during her years at Cambridge, and the change in flow when third wheel Leon arrives on the scene.

In “Downtown”, an artist takes her aunts (“Jamaican ladies of a certain dimension”) on a walking tour of the Big Apple, relaying sights and sounds and the latest developments in the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. In “Escape From New York”, three friends flee a city under attack. And in “Just Right”, an eight-year-old boy puts on a puppet show then learns the hard way about people’s fickle emotions.

Eight of the book’s nineteen stories first appeared in Granta, the New Yorker and the Paris Review. However, these tales are not necessarily the strongest. The previously unpublished “Kelso Deconstructed” is a compelling last-day-in-the-life of an Antiguan immigrant in north-west London in the late Fifties. While the title character nurses a mangled thumb, navigates a racist society and inches closer towards a cruel and untimely death, Smith flags up the story’s artifice and outlines her authorial techniques – without once allowing her postmodern trickery to dent any of the emotional impact.

Not every story packs a punch. In some shorter pieces Smith experiments with form and tries out new styles. Although it is right that she should flex her creative muscles and take risks outside her comfort zone, it proves more rewarding when she plays to her strengths and returns to more naturalistic tale-telling with fleshed-out characters, believable scenarios and voices which ring true.

Closing the proceedings is the book’s eponymous story – more a sketch – in which a woman communes with the ghost of her mother on the steps of a Chinese restaurant while surveying scattered detritus from the Notting Hill carnival. In just four bittersweet pages, Smith manages to simultaneously convey a sense of loss and an unbreakable bond. Here and elsewhere she does what all good writers should do: leaves her reader wanting more.