Best Book – Smut

Alan Bennett
Rating ****

‘Smut’ takes the form of two short stories by Northern national treasure, Alan Bennett. The first, ‘The Greening of Mrs Donaldson’, focuses on a widowed older woman, acting out diagnostic role plays for medical students to pay her bills, and the second, ‘The Shielding of Mrs Forbes’, a tale of public secrets and a disastrous suburban marriage. Described by the Independent as being like the ‘saucy seaside postcards of old’ the book will have you laughing like a hyena, at the same time as being whole heartedly mortified at the bluntness of Bennett’s literary approach to his smut.

An endearing old lady called Mrs Donaldson has two students lodging in her house, who offer to pay her in ‘sexual favours’ when they get into arrears with their rent. This story is keen to explore an elderly woman’s sexual reawakening as part of Bennett’s conviction that ageing should not be categorised as just a ‘little accident.’ The second story, involving one Mrs Forbes, centres on another elderly lady, whose son is ‘secretly’ gay. The son, Graham marries Betty in order to maintain the concealment of his true sexuality. Bennett is truly honest and dry in his humorous depiction of the twists and turns of this story.

These sentimental stories will touch you with their genuine emotion, while the graphic and uncompromising sexual details are made to shock. Don’t be offended by what you read, but be prepared for the grotesque. Despite this, the narrative is beautifully constructed with a clear sense of purpose. The language is no sense fustian, but every word weighted with meaning. The cutting comedy, both dark and whimsical is entertaining throughout and at only 189 pages, ‘Smut’ is a swift read. The dramatic scenes in ‘The Greening of Mrs Donaldson; are, at time, hilarious, while other scenes are immensely poignant. Bennett manages to create two stories with the ability to astonish, while simultaneously invoking emotion, a truly amazing feat.

‘Smut’ is the ideal length to read in one sitting, perfect for a quick read over the Easter holidays, or as an way to ease your return to ‘reading books for pleasure’ after a long term of being forced to read Derrida or such like. ‘Smut’ should definitely be on your list of Easter purchases, if only to give as a present to your mum.

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