Zadie Smith became a literary star in 2000 with the release of White Teeth, a beloved novel about the friendship between two men in London, which she wrote as a student at Cambridge. Four best-selling novels and one essay collection later, Smith’s first collection of short stories, Grand Union, is highly anticipated, to say the least. And it mostly succeeds…though not without some missteps.
The collection is comprised of 19 stories—11 are brand new and the rest have been previously published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review and Granta. Some use real-life events as jumping-off points, like “Kelso Deconstructed,” a story based on the last days of Kelso Cochrane, an Antiguan immigrant who was murdered in London in 1959. Smith’s version of the story features a Sally Rooney cameo that feels very inside baseball—in a good way. Others reference urban legends. “Escape from New York,” for example, imagines that Michael Jackson drove Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando out of New York City in the aftermath of 9/11.
As is to be expected from a collection of length, some stories work better than others. The college romance “Sentimental Education,” feels gratuitously vulgar in its description of sex acts, while “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets” loses steam before the reader can get invested in its plot (it’s about an aging drag queen, by the way).
Perhaps the most memorable piece is “The Lazy River,” a story that uses a lazy river at a resort in Spain as a metaphor for, well, the human condition. Luckily, Smith’s pitch-perfect description prevents this from feeling too on-the-nose. “We’re submerged, all of us. You, me, the children, our friends, their children, everybody else. Sometimes we get out: for lunch, to read or to tan, never for very long. Then we all climb back into the metaphor," she explains.
Fans of Smith’s work will appreciate her immense talent as a writer, but newbies are better off starting with one of her novels (specifically On Beauty or White Teeth), which are more consistently thrilling than these bits of hit-or-miss ephemera.