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Book Cover Image: Smut by Alan BennettTitle: Smut
Author: Alan Bennett
ISBN: 9781250003164
Genre: Short stories
No. of Pages: 152
Synopsis:

“One of England’s finest and most loved writers explores the uncomfortable and tragicomic gap between people’s public appearance and their private desires in two tender and surprising stories.

In The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson, a recently bereaved widow finds interesting ways to supplement her income by performing as a patient for medical students, and renting out her spare room. Quiet, middle-class, and middle-aged, Mrs. Donaldson will soon discover that she rather enjoys role-play at the hospital, and the irregular and startling entertainment provided by her tenants.

In The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes, a disappointed middle-aged mother dotes on her only son, Graham, who believes he must shield her from the truth. As Graham’s double life becomes increasingly complicated, we realize how little he understands, not only of his own desires but also those of his mother.

A master storyteller dissects a very English form of secrecy with two stories of the unexpected in otherwise apparently ordinary lives.”

Thoughts: Lately, there has been a spate of novels that enforce the lesson that one can never truly know someone else. While someone may portray himself in a public persona as polished and urbane, this same person could be struggling with a mental disorder or harboring a hoarding fetish. One just never knows and can never know all of the details. Smut is yet another example of this, focusing on sexual proclivities instead of other personality traits.

What is Smut? This is one instance where the author’s choice of verbiage is quite telling. This one little word has multiple definitions, all of which apply to Bennett’s stories. One definition for smut is a particle of dirt or a smudge made by soot or dirt. Yet another definition is something that is obscene in writing or speech. The third, and probably most well-known, definition is pornography. It is also a form of fungus on grains. Driving home the point that what is ordinary to some is extraordinary to others, both of Bennett’s main characters experience a shift in their own definitions of smut. What both of them would have once considered obscene becomes acceptable, even commonplace. These acts become as innocent as a smudge of dirt to the main characters, while others revile their actions as akin to the lowliest form of fungi.

With a title like Smut, one would expect a fair level of explicit sex. While there are definitely sex scenes, Bennett shies away from crossing over into the pornographic. Granted, for certain readers even what is portrayed may be too much, but that is not Bennett’s intent. Through Mrs. Donaldson’s awakening and Graham’s own experiences, the reader is meant to understand better the complexity of human nature and the fear in which each of us lives at the thought of being considered abnormal or different from others.

Because of its very nature, Smut is not for all audiences; it does take a fair amount of open-mindedness about sexuality to finish either story. For those willing and able to do so, Bennett’s short stories provide tremendous insight into those who may be considered to be on the fringes of society, even if they appear perfectly ordinary to the world. Truly, what is “ordinary” and “normal” anyway?

Acknowledgements: Thank you to the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association for my advanced copy!

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