The Book of Other People, Ed Zadie Smith

Hysterical realism grows up at last

Big names stud the list of contributors to this bold, inviting collection, and readers are bound to see these pages as a guide to the health of contemporary fiction. Zadie Smith explains in her introduction that each contributor was told to "make someone up", and name the resulting story after that protagonist. Profits will go to Dave Eggers' 826 NYC, a charity that promotes children's literacy. So what do these writers, mostly young and fashionable – Hari Kunzru, Adam Thirlwell, David Mitchell – make of the commission?

First, it becomes clear that the book's summoning command imposes no genuine restrictions on the writers; each story – like almost every short story ever written – orbits around a central character, but that is all that unites them. Still, inside we find much of what is best about contemporary writing, and a helping of what is worst.

The collection starts with a well-crafted piece by David Mitchell. Judith Castle is an exquisitely recognisable middle-aged busybody who runs a local am-dram society, and thinks she is in love. But with characteristic deftness, Mitchell establishes this gargoyle only then to reveal what is genuinely moving about her: a callous, unfeeling father is the cause of her emotional stiltedness. Here is a reminder that good literature works by broadening the scope of our empathy.

Similar successes come throughout, such as Jonathan Safran Foer's gentle, funny "Rhoda", in which a dying grandmother talks to her grandson. In Zadie Smith's "Hanwell Snr", an unnamed narrator remembers her feckless grandfather in a way that does justice to the strange, tortuous history of every ordinary family. Even Dave Eggers' magical "Theo", in which three ancient hills are revealed to be giant, grassy people, is a subtle examination of the human heart. Stories from Kunzru, AM Homes, and George Saunders also succeed. Elsewhere – though infrequently – come familiar faults. Would Adam Thirlwell be so fascinated by the sex life of his protagonist, Nigora, and that of her lovers Komil, Bakhitiyor and Yaha, if they did not have fashionably exotic names? American media darling Miranda July spoils a reflection on romantic loss by telling us in the closing paragraphs, "I felt a tidal swell of loss."

So what can we conclude after The Book of Other People? That Chekhov's influence on the short story is still paramount. That "hysterical realism", the tendency in contemporary fiction so accurately diagnosed by critic James Wood in 2001 – symptoms include fact fetishism, list making, digressive mini-essays – has mercifully given way to something more intelligent and true. Last, that fiction rarely awards first prize to youth. The standout story here is the beautiful "Donal Webster", in which an Irish expat in Texas remembers the death of his mother in Dublin, and looks out to "flatness, a blue sky, a soft, unhaunted night". It's by Colm Tóibí*, who at 52 is the oldest writer between these covers, and would alone make this collection worthwhile.

Hamish Hamilton £16.99

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