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Grand Union

Whenever I read Zadie Smith, I think you can’t not like her. Her prose is elegant, funny and so damn clever. Much like the narrating voice in “For the King” in her short story volume Grand Union, she seems like she would be a fun conversation partner over dinner and a bottle of wine. This story was in fact one of my favourites in a collection of strong offerings, barrelling along at a wonderful, semi-stream-of-consciousness type pace as an evening of conversation between two old friends prances and pivots around intersectional understandings of gender, sex and race across generational divides, and the attractiveness of the waiter, with equal grace.

There are a few meditations on motherhood and the complex relationships it produces. “The toddler wore a huge soggy nappy hanging behind him, hardening like clay. It was something to consider” – from the opening lines of “Sentimental Education” has stayed with me and makes me smile every time I consider a child in a nappy. A wonderfully delicate navigation of mother/daughter chemistry is given in the final and titular piece “Grand Union”, which stages a chat between the narrator and her mother “who was dead, and in heaven, but for convenience’s sake we met outside the chicken spot at the top of Ladbroke Grove”. In the afterlife, her mother has become Nanny of the Maroons, assuring her daughter she’s Asante and critiquing her use of Americanisms in the same breath.

“Kelso Deconstructed” is another powerful piece: a fictionalized reconstruction of the true story of Kelso Cochrane, a carpenter from Antigua who settled in London. Cochrane was killed in a racially motivated stabbing in 1959. None of the white men responsible for his murder were ever brought to justice, and his murder crystallized a systemic racism that seems – perhaps even more since Smith’s evocation of it in 2019 – as relevant and urgent as ever. This piece is also very meta; a reflection on what it is to tell this kind of story at all, to weave it into narrative, to use such source material as ‘material’. Perhaps it could be critiqued for over-intellectualizing (with its tube stop named Tolstoy and its Toni Morrison quotes), but I found it very compelling.

Smith charts her writerly routes through tricky terrain skillfully, and her trademark wit can be relied on to take the reader through the various settings, scenarios and idiosyncratic characters of Grand Union with a deft hand.

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