In her first short story collection, Zadie Smith mines the fraught and complex experience of life in the modern world. Interweaving eleven completely new and unpublished stories with some of her best-loved pieces from The New Yorker and elsewhere, Smith moves across genres and perspectives, from the historic to the vividly current to the slyly dystopian.
Some... more traditional stories have landed in Smith’s first collection, Grand Union, and while still brilliant on the level of the sentence, the paragraph, the often hilarious skewering of humanity, they’re the least successful ones here, sour notes in a collection in which the best pieces achieve something less narrative and closer to brilliance. The more traditional stories become most interesting as examples of a mode from which Smith seems to be evolving away ... Thrillingly, the best work in Grand Union is some of the newest. Among its previously unpublished stories and the two most recently published ones, we find the surreal, the nonlinear, the essayistic, the pointillist ... For a lesser writer, we might wish more avidly for an editor to have stepped in to carve the book into something more specific, more pointed. But Smith’s stature will have made many of her readers completists and her artistic development a matter of interest. While the collection might not coalesce as a unit, it contains some of Smith’s most vibrant, original fiction, the kind of writing she’ll surely be known for. Some of these stories provide hints that everything we’ve seen from her so far will one day be considered her 'early work,' that what lies ahead is less charted territory, wilder and less predictable and perhaps less palatable to the casual reader but exactly what she needs to be writing.
If only achieving Smith’s mastery was as easy as following the instructions on a class handout. An A+ to her for reaching the goals of stirring empathy ('the aim and purpose of all stories, everywhere, always') and of drawing in the reader. A few stories with a surreal bent play less to her strengths but, overall, Grand Union, had me feeling like a fourth-grader, lying 'upon the floor, reading delightedly from a book, lost in it completely'.
In reviewing Zadie Smith’s diverse first book of short stories, it would be outrageous not to praise the author’s versatility ... Smith’s readers should get some credit too, however, for their fortitude. These are not pages to relax into; personally, I felt as if I was on a gruelling psychological training course in which I was constantly under assault from different aspects of Smith’s talent. For all their brilliance, only the author, surely, could engage with each of the 19 stories equally ...the collection’s masterpieces are the rather more traditional stories. These employ prose so limpid to describe unvarnished reality that it might be in the early novellas of Truman Capote, and conclude with illuminating twists that could make Guy de Maupassant envious ... The true spice of this collection is not its variety; it is Smith’s glorious viciousness.