A. L. Kennedy is finally receiving the kind of recognition she has long deserveddeserved, in fact, ever since the publication of her first book, Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains (1990). This is not to suggest that Kennedy has been toiling away in obscurity for the past two decades. Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains was well received, and Kennedy has been selected for two of Granta magazine’s three Best of Young British Novelists issues (1993 and 2003). Nonetheless, although her first two novelsLooking for the Possible Dance (1993) and So I Am Glad (1995)have been much discussed, they have been overshadowed by fellow Scot Janice Galloway’s debut, The Trick Is to Keep Breathing (1989). The trick for writers who cultivated their own patch of Scotland, in those times before Irvine Welsh’s popular novel Trainspotting (1993), was to get noticed at all outside the United Kingdom, especially in the United States. The American edition of So I Am Glad did not appear until 2000, one year after Original Bliss, a novella published in the United Kingdom in 1997 as part of a collection of Kennedy’s short fiction. Therein lies another hurdle that Kennedy had to get over. She is, like Lorrie Moore in the United States, a master short-story teller who alternates between collections and novel. Her work in the one form (where her brilliance shines most intensely) has worked against her achieving greater fame in what Pascale Casanova calls “the world republic of letters,” where, because literary size does unfortunately still matter, the novel rules. Admittedly, Kennedy’s two most recent novels (also her longest)Everything You Need (2002) and Paradise (2004)have received mixed reviews. With the publication of Day, however, mere respect has turned into nearly universal acclaim. The novel has already won the Costa Prize (formerly the Whitbread) in Britain, the Saltire Award in Scotland, and major prizes in Austria and Germany, and Kennedy has been selected for a Literary Award (worth $150,000) from the Lannan Foundation in the United States. Will all the attention cause the prolific and demanding but decidedly low-key author to give up her budding career as a stand-up comedian? Probably not.
Day succeeds so well in large part because Kennedy brings the psychological, atmospheric, and stylistic intensity of her short fiction to bear on a long narrative that develops in chronologically knotted bursts rather than progressing linearly. The novel begins in 1949 on a film set in Germany, where Alfred F. Day plays a prisoner of war (POW). It is a part he knows well, having spent time in a real POW camp after his Lancaster bomber was shot down in July, 1944, during a raid on Hamburg. From this moment, the twenty-five-year-old Day (and the two-hundred-and-eighty-page Day) travels back over the previous decade: to his time in the POW camp, to his Royal Air Force (RAF) training and nearly thirty missions as a turret gunner, to his wartime love affair with an officer’s wife he meets while on leave in London, and, more fleetingly, to his long-suffering mother and abusive father in a small town in Staffordshire in England’s West Midlands. Recounting Day in this fashion makes the novel seem much more orderly and readerly than it actually is, for what Kennedy has written is really a stream-of-consciousness, day-in-the-life novel, such as James Joyce’s monumental Ulysses (1922) and Virginia Woolf’s more circumscribed Mrs. Dalloway (1925). Woolf and Joyce wrote just as filmthe medium Orson Welles described as “a ribbon of dream”began to influence fiction writers. Kennedy, who already has one film to her creditStella Does Tricks (1994), adapted from one of her short storiescombines a number of cinematic techniques, such as cross-cutting and lap dissolves, with the free association and free indirect discourse of the dreamlike novel’s second-person narration. She does so both to rewrite history from Day’s highly personal perspective and to rescue the written word from the shock and awe of visual media’s spectacularizing of history. (Day may be set during and just after World War II, but it was written and presumably is meant to be read in the context of the disastrous U.S. attack on Iraq and its prolonged aftermath.)
The depth of Kennedy’s researchconducted at the Imperial War Museum in London and at the Lincolnshire Aviation Centreis evident throughout the novel, but the historical facts are never pedantically presented merely to edify the reader, and they never detract from Kennedy’s famously opaque style. The novel’s authenticity strangely but effectively combines with an intertextuality that provides a...
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