A. L. Kennedy 1965-
(Full name Alison Louise Kennedy) Scottish short story writer, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, nonfiction writer, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Kennedy's career through 2003.
Kennedy is one of the most critically acclaimed writers in contemporary Scottish fiction. Her works often focus on mundane events and average, everyday people and illuminate the pain, loneliness, and self-doubt experienced during quests to find love and inner peace. Praised for her understated descriptions and deft characterizations, her works are also noted for their clear and concise prose and playful twists of the language.
Kennedy was born on October 22, 1962, in Dundee, a coastal city in east Scotland. As early as the age of four, she recognized that her parents were unhappily married, but they did not divorce until she was eleven. Her mother retained custody and Kennedy stayed in Dundee, graduating from Dundee High in 1983. She then enrolled in the University of Warwick, where she earned her B.A. in theater studies and drama in 1986. After completing her degree, she briefly worked in a myriad of occupations and occasionally drew unemployment while she worked on her first book. In 1988, she organized creative-writing workshops for children and single parents, and from 1989 to 1991 she was the writer-in-residence for Hamilton & East Kilbride Social Work Department. She was awarded the Social Work Today Award in 1990, and from 1989 to 1995 was writer-in-residence for Project Ability—a Glasgow-based art center providing disabled people better access to the visual arts. In 1996, Kennedy was selected as one of the judges for the prestigious Booker Prize for literature. In 1998, in great pain because of a slipped disc in her back and emotionally bereft due to a broken relationship, Kennedy contemplated suicide. Reportedly, as she stood at an open fourth-story window preparing to jump, she heard someone on the street below singing so horribly that she decided she could not leave the world escorted by such terrible music. Subsequently, Kennedy took a writing assignment and traveled to Spain to write about the running of the bulls—and about the life and death struggles of both bulls and matadors in On Bullfighting. In 2001, she became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. She is a judge for the Guardian First Book Prize and the Orange Prize for fiction. She resides in Glasgow where she occasionally writes for the Guardian and reviews books for the Telegraph, the BBC, and Irish Times. Kennedy's first collection of short stories, Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains (1990) was awarded the Scottish Arts Council Book Award in 1991, the Saltire First Book Award in 1991, and the Mail on Sunday/John Llewelyn Rhy Prize in 1991. Looking for the Possible Dance (1993), her first novel, received the Scottish Arts Council Book Award in 1994, the Somerset Maugham Award in 1994, and secured Kennedy a spot on the Best of British Young Novelists list in 1993. She has also earned the Scottish Arts Council Book Award for So I Am Glad (1995), Everything You Need (1999), and On Bullfighting (1999). She received the Saltire First Book Award and the Encore Award for So I Am Glad; the SAC Book Award for Everything You Need; and a Salon.com Award for Original Bliss (1997). In 2003, Kennedy was named one of the Best of Young British Novelists by Granta.
Many of Kennedy's short stories reflect the inner turmoil and anguish of abusive situations. In addition, her works focus on the sense of invisibility felt by many in contemporary society, and the confusion commonly experienced when confronted with great adversity. In Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains, the majority of the stories are narrated by women who lead unspectacular lives and who feel unappreciated and unacknowledged. In the title story, a woman whose train is cancelled returns home to find her husband in bed with another woman. The wronged wife decides to stab him but instead cuts herself with the knife and ends up at the hospital. The action in the story is secondary to the thoughts and warring emotions the narrator experiences. “Friday Payday,” a story in Now That You're Back (1994), deals with the sordid world of child prostitution. The protagonist is a young teenage girl who, after being sexually abused by her father, runs to London and becomes a prostitute. Kennedy subsequently wrote a screenplay based on the story titled Stella Does Tricks, which was released in 1997. Kennedy further developed her themes in Indelible Acts: Stories (2002), broadening her range by including stories narrated by both men and women, young and old. “Immaculate Man” analyzes the paranoia and excitement a male attorney experiences when his married, male boss makes sexual advances at him. “A Bad Son” centers on a boy whose mother is abused by his father and the boy's guilt and feelings of helplessness at not being able to stop the abuse.
Many of the themes Kennedy explores in her short fiction are probed further in her novels. Looking for the Possible Dance examines familial ties and romantic/sexual relationships. The protagonist Margaret lacks control in her life. Her lover leaves, her father dies, she is fired from her job. Her lover returns, then is brutally and graphically murdered. Margaret has become a voiceless witness of her own life. Kennedy examines the reasons behind her immobility and her non-participation in guiding and structuring her existence. In contrast, So I Am Glad presents Jennifer, a woman who apparently is in complete control of her life. However, the tale reveals that when she was a child, she was forced to witness her parents' sexual relations. Jennifer's coping strategy evolves into a suppression of her emotions. This stratagem appears to be successful until a man mysteriously materializes in her life. The man is Cyrano de Bergerac, from seventeenth-century France. Jennifer is drawn to Cyrano and begins to open up sexually and emotionally. Through her relationship with him, she learns to truly take control by expressing her feelings and sharing her emotions. Original Bliss features Mrs. Brindle, a character married to an abusive husband who has lost her faith in God. To fill the void in her life, she attends a lecture by a psychology professor, Edward Gluck. He too carries emotional baggage—he has an addiction to hardcore pornography. The two embark on a tender relationship that heals them both. This redemptive power of love is also depicted in Everything You Need—this time, the love is familial. Nathan Staples, a talented writer with a beautiful wife and daughter, experiences disaster when his wife leaves him, taking their daughter with her. His career flounders miserably, but he eventually becomes the director of a writers's retreat set on an island. Fifteen years later, after a dismally failed attempt at suicide, he anonymously offers his daughter a writing fellowship on the island. She accepts and he becomes her mentor. Although he hides his identity from her, the two forge a powerful bond that helps each become stronger, forgiving, and healthy. This evolution of self-acceptance and self-confidence is an important recurring motif at the heart of each of Kennedy's writing. While her protagonists achieve varying levels of material and emotional success, Kennedy exposes their weaknesses, passions, and strengths, illuminating the goals of loving and being loved.
Critics have applauded Kennedy's well-crafted, straightforward prose style, noting the original phrasing she uses in her descriptive language. Several reviewers have complimented the emotional power and depth of Kennedy's fiction, though some have argued that her liberal use of profanity is excessive. Though certain commentators have been disappointed by the lack of narrative action in Kennedy's writing, most have agreed that her focus on the minutiae and mundane aspects of life render her works more realistic and infuse her narrative with a subtle strength. Such critics have deemed that Kennedy possesses a mastery of language that allows even implausible elements to be overlooked by readers who become entranced by the narration. A number of scholars have asserted that Kennedy's dominant form is the short story genre, stating that her careful control and economy with words is an asset in shorter fiction but uncontrollable in larger formats. Several reviewers have complained that Everything You Need departs from Kennedy's traditionally lively narrative style, but most critics have enjoyed the novel's thinly veiled barbs at literary prize selections and the publishing industry.
Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains (short stories) 1990
The Audition (play) 1993
The Ghost of Liberace [editor; with Hamish Whyte and Meg Bateman] (short stories and poetry) 1993
Looking for the Possible Dance (novel) 1993
*Totally out of It (screenplay) 1993
*Just to Say (screenplay) 1994
Now That You're Back (short stories) 1994
A Sort of Hot Scotland [editor; with James McGonigal and Meg Bateman] (short stories and poetry) 1994
*The Year of the Prince (screenplay) 1994
†Ghostdancing (screenplay) 1995
Last Things First [editor; with James McGonigal and Meg Bateman] (short stories and poetry) 1995
So I Am Glad (novel) 1995
*There's an End to an Auld Sang (screenplay) 1995
Delicate (play) 1996
Tea and Biscuits (short stories) 1996
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (nonfiction) 1997
Original Bliss (novella and short stories) 1997
‡Stella Does Tricks (screenplay) 1997
Absolutely Nothing (short stories) 1998
Everything You Need (novel) 1999
†For the Love of Burns (screenplay) 1999
On Bullfighting (essays) 1999
Indian Summer (play) 2000
True (Requiem for Lucy Palmer) (play) 2000
Born a Fox (radio play) 2002
Indelible Acts: Stories (short stories) 2002
*These screenplays were produced as educational dramas for television by the BBC.
†Kennedy wrote the screenplay and appeared as the presenter in these BBC documentaries.
‡The screenplay is based on Kennedy's short story “Friday Payday.”
SOURCE: Jamie, Kathleen. Review of Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains, by A. L. Kennedy. Times Literary Supplement, no. 4592 (5 April 1991): 27.
[In the following review, Jamie commends Kennedy's compassion and tenderness in Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains but argues that the stories are too repetitive in theme and weighed down by depressing plots.]
This stylish-looking paperback from Polygon confirms the publisher's house-style and content: a city-based Scottishness with little room for magic. A. L. Kennedy's collection of short stories [Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains] hangs together well, too well perhaps. The blurb calls...
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SOURCE: Cooke, Judy. “Pain Control.” New Statesman and Society 6, no. 240 (19 February 1993): 40-1.
[In the following review, Cooke praises Kennedy's nontraditional prose style in Looking for the Possible Dance, commenting that the work stands out as a first novel due to “the quality of its writing from page to page.”]
“Could I have a coffee and a wee cup of paraquat?” asks Margaret, whose boss is beginning to get on her nerves. The offer of “a Penguin on the house” isn't much of a comfort, except to the reader, who by now will have the measure of Kennedy's sharp, quirky prose. Her Glaswegian humour—reminiscent of James Kelman's short...
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SOURCE: Greenlaw, Lavinia. “Connecting at Glasgow.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4692 (5 March 1993): 20.
[In the following review, Greenlaw compliments Kennedy for her non-linear storytelling skills and her decision to leave the conclusion ambiguous in Looking for the Possible Dance.]
The first novel by the award-winning Scottish writer A. L. Kennedy [Looking for the Possible Dance] is ostensibly a simple story of leaving home. The narrative is threaded around the journey of Margaret Hamilton from Glasgow to London. She is leaving, but she has left before. She will probably come back. As she travels south, the events that led to her sudden departure are...
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SOURCE: Loose, Julian. “Glasgow über Alles.” London Review of Books 15, no. 13 (8 July 1993): 18.
[In the following excerpt, Loose comments that the ultra-violent and bizarre death of Colin in Looking for the Possible Dance is a jarring departure from the rest of the volume's understated prose style.]
This sense of a city crowded with narratives is echoed in A. L. Kennedy's short story “The Role of Notable Silences in Scottish History”, where she describes walking through Glasgow as ‘strolling across a book, something big and Victorian with plenty of plots. It makes you wonder who's reading you.’ By contrast, Kennedy's own fiction is intimate in...
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SOURCE: Milne, Kirsty. “Mind Games.” New Statesman and Society 7, no. 289 (11 February 1994): 39-40.
[In the following review, Milne lauds Kennedy's continued expertise at crafting confident short fiction but criticizes the more experimental stories in Now That You're Back.]
The young Scots writer A L Kennedy comes trailing clouds of dangerous eulogy. Her first collection of stories, published by Polygon in 1990, revealed an accomplished writer always one step ahead of her reader's expectations. Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains—a title so intriguing as to prompt on-the-spot purchase—proved worth buying for the cool conviction of Kennedy's prose....
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SOURCE: Ashworth, Andrea. “Between the Perverse and the Proper.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4743 (25 February 1994): 19.
[In the following review, Ashworth maintains that Kennedy illuminates common human experiences in Now That You're Back through her introspective and deft characterizations.]
Like the telepathic heroine of “Christine”, A. L. Kennedy has a gift for getting inside people's heads. Following her first novel, Looking for the Possible Dance, this new collection of stories, Now That You're Back, dips once more into little lives brimming with big thoughts.
Kennedy's characters are studies in eccentricity and...
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SOURCE: Clark, Alex. “Jennifer's Song.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4806 (12 May 1995): 20.
[In the following review, Clark contends that So I Am Glad further illustrates Kennedy's imaginative and inventive writing style.]
Jennifer Wilson is a woman in her mid-thirties, living in Scotland. Her life is a peculiar but familiar mixture of over-control and massive hidden trauma. She has spent a childhood in isolation with her parents, her loneliness made worse by their particular form of abuse—they forced her to be a voyeur to their sex life—from which she has only been released by their deaths in a car crash. Her strategy for survival since then has been...
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SOURCE: Smith, Sarah A. “A Nose for Injustice.” New Statesman and Society 8, no. 354 (26 May 1995): 25.
[In the following review, Smith comments that, despite her initial trepidation about reviewing a “second novel,” So I Am Glad successfully balances wry social commentary with a well developed plot.]
Second novels are, by tradition, difficult to write and disappointing to read. I cannot comment upon the first part of this maxim, but A L Kennedy has destroyed the remainder with a vengeance. So I Am Glad is funny, strange, and almost entirely wonderful. The novel takes the form of a memoir: Jennifer Wilson's recollections of 1993 and 1994, with...
(The entire section is 524 words.)
SOURCE: Birch, Dinah. “Warming My Hands and Telling Lies.” London Review of Books 17, no. 15 (3 August 1995): 17.
[In the following review, Birch explores recurring thematic motifs in Kennedy's writing and offers a positive assessment of the optimistic and hopeful ending of So I Am Glad.]
One of the most convincing inclusions in Granta's list of the 20 best young British novelists, A. L. Kennedy, has composed a distinctive voice out of youth and national identity. She was born in Dundee, and now lives in Glasgow; Scottishness informs her fiction. This is partly a matter of a characteristic introspection, the tradition of spiritual autobiography that generated the...
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SOURCE: Craig, Amanda. “Passion & Physics.” New Statesman 10, no. 435 (10 January 1997): 47.
[In the following excerpt, Craig presents a favorable assessment of Kennedy's subtle and effective prose in Original Bliss, commenting that it “is regrettable that Kennedy will probably be read solely by women.”]
Anyone who reads fiction knows there is a male canon and a female one. Perhaps the present-day preference for Amis or Atwood is simply a matter of temperament, or perhaps it goes back to Richardson and Fielding and the masculine assertion for sense over sensibility. Yet the true reader, like the true writer, is concerned with more than gender; and to...
(The entire section is 435 words.)
SOURCE: Waugh, Teresa. “This Small Masterpiece.” Spectator 278, no. 8790 (18 January 1997): 35-6.
[In the following review, Waugh observes that several of the short stories in Original Bliss are strangely disjointed and forgettable but maintains that the title story is extremely emotional and masterfully written.]
Perhaps it has something to do with the time of year, with the crippling cold and all those horrible germs flying about, but it seems hard to concentrate on some of A. L. Kennedy's stories in her new collection, Original Bliss. You're not always sure where you are—or why you're there; there is even an unreal quality about the characters...
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SOURCE: Mundy, Toby. “Novel of the Week.” New Statesman 128, no. 4437 (24 May 1999): 49.
[In the following review, Mundy notes the boldness of the content and prose in Everything You Need but argues that the novel's dreariness weighs down the story's plot.]
Nathan Staples is a successful writer of gory splatter novels. He is also possessed of a powerful impulse to self-mutilation and suicide, as his mind spends its days circling “the shameful hollow of himself”. For the last few years, Nathan has lived on Foal Island, a writer's colony and religious retreat off the Welsh coast. He is tortured by the departure of his wife and young daughter 15 years...
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SOURCE: Grant, Katie. “More Four-Letter Words Than You Need.” Spectator 282, no. 8912 (29 May 1999): 40-1.
[In the following review, Grant asserts that Kennedy discusses a variety of important topics in Everything You Need but stresses that Kennedy needs to further develop plot tangents and write in one clear literary style.]
Finish your breakfast before reading this.
Things could be worse … stapling my scrotum to the flesh of my inner thighs and then performing Scottish country dances until I feel my socks congeal. I think that would be worse.
Thus we are plunged into the tangled and...
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SOURCE: Wall, Eamonn. Review of Original Bliss, by A. L. Kennedy. Review of Contemporary Fiction 19, no. 3 (fall 1999): 161-62.
[In the following review, Wall offers a positive assessment of Kennedy's “richly understated and beautifully plotted” narrative in Original Bliss.]
Original Bliss, a strange and unpredictable novel, explores and uncovers the various levels of abuse which Helen Brindle has been subjected to throughout her life, and moves toward a surprising salvation. As a result of a strict religious upbringing and involvement in an unsatisfactory marriage to a cold and abusive man, she is emotionally crippled. Her life changes after seeing...
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SOURCE: Lannon, Frances. “Taking the Bull by the Horns—and the Camera.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5051 (21 January 2000): 10-11.
[In the following excerpt, Lannon characterizes Kennedy's depiction of the sport of bullfighting in On Bullfighting as respectful and illuminating.]
A. L. Kennedy attended several bullfights in Madrid and Seville when she was researching On Bullfighting. She took a notebook, binoculars and two cameras, fieldwork equipment that amused her neighbours in the stands, who felt no need of pen or lens to identify and understand what they were witnessing. When the fourth bull of the first corrida she attended tosses Otto...
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SOURCE: Fox, Lorna Scott. “A Fine Time Together.” London Review of Books 22, no. 14 (20 July 2000): 37-9.
[In the following review, Fox provides information on the history of bullfighting and offers a critique of On Bullfighting, arguing that Kennedy's recollections of her personal and emotional turmoils detract from the work.]
Most people who are obsessive animal-lovers as children grow out of it. I didn't. I still feel a helpless identification with most of them, and the scene in Apocalypse Now in which scurrying specks are bombed from helicopters simply made it harder for me to step on ants. So I find it difficult to justify my liking for the...
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SOURCE: Dunnigan, Sarah M. “A. L. Kennedy's Longer Fiction: Articulate Grace.” In Contemporary Scottish Women Writers, edited by Aileen Christianson and Alison Lumsden, pp. 144-55. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, Dunnigan traces the recurring themes of sexuality, abusive relationships, and the quest for love in Looking for the Possible Dance, So I Am Glad, Original Bliss, and Everything You Need.]
Alison Louise Kennedy (b. 1965) is an elusive rather than an evasive writer; elusive in her refusal to be pinned down to any literary ‘philosophy’ or credo of gender or nationalism, not evasive because she states...
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SOURCE: Lumsden, Alison. “Scottish Women's Short Stories: ‘Repositories of Life Swiftly Apprehended.’” In Contemporary Scottish Women Writers, edited by Aileen Christianson and Alison Lumsden, pp. 156-69. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 2000.
[In the following excerpt, Lumsden examines how Kennedy explores issues of both gender and Scottish national identity in her short fiction.]
In a recent introduction to the Macallan/Scotland on Sunday collection Shorts, Candia McWilliam writes:
Short stories are a disputed phenomenon. Are they harder, or easier, to write than novels, writers are asked, as...
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SOURCE: Smith, Michael. “The Psychology of the Bull Fight.” Lancet 357, no. 9251 (20 January 2001): 239.
[In the following review, Smith praises Kennedy's critical examination of life, death, and bravado in On Bullfighting.]
The modest title of this book is misleading. A L Kennedy certainly writes compellingly “on bullfighting”, but her book is also about passion, risk, depression, and suicide—not least the contemplated death of the author herself.
Before beginning this commission, Alison Kennedy dangled her bare feet over the window-ledge of her fourth-floor Glasgow tenement, planning her death. It was, she remembers, a “vaguely peaceful...
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SOURCE: Petro, Pamela. “School of Wales.” Women's Review of Books 18, nos. 10-11 (July 2001): 30.
[In the following review, Petro compliments both the main storyline and the peripheral stories of the supporting characters in Everything You Need.]
As its title suggests, Everything You Need strives to be an all-encompassing book: a big, exhaustive, no-stone-unturned examination of the tidal rhythms of romantic and familial love, of professional accomplishment, self-respect and life passing into death and flowing back as memory. And for the most part, Scottish writer A. L. Kennedy's latest work of fiction, her third, succeeds magnificently. Her last novel,...
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SOURCE: Charles, Ron. “No Man—or Writer—Is an Island.” Christian Science Monitor 93, no. 164 (19 July 2001): 18-19.
[In the following review, Charles commends the adept symmetry of delicacy and harshness in Everything You Need.]
How quietly, how quickly A. L. Kennedy has taken a place in the pantheon of contemporary novelists. In America, she remains something of a treasured secret, but in Britain, this 36-year-old Scottish woman has already racked up a half dozen impressive awards. She's even served as a juror for the Booker Prize.
Her latest novel, Everything You Need, is unlikely to change her position on this side of the Atlantic....
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SOURCE: Kennedy, A. L., and Yvonne Nolan. “A Dream Not Her Own.” Publishers Weekly 248, no. 30 (23 July 2001): 43, 46.
[In the following interview, Kennedy discusses her writing career, her love of the theatre, the meaninglessness of literary prizes, and the perils of the writing profession.]
The taxi driver says that the West End of Glasgow is where people with money live. It's the gracious-living part of Glasgow. You'll find the University there, the glass domes of the Botanic Gardens, restaurants where the Parmesan comes in shavings, not powder. Graceful, sun-dappled Victorian terraces hewn from Scottish sandstone line the tree-shaded streets. It's a world away...
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SOURCE: McDermid, Val. “The Sorcerer's Apprentice.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (26 August 2001): 5.
[In the following review, McDermid contends that Kennedy's masterful narrative abilities in Everything You Need allow readers to overlook the novel's lapses of plausibility and uncertain ending.]
Nathan Staples is a best-selling author of Gothic horror novels. He lives in virtual exile on an island with half a dozen other writers, each of whom is about as socially adept as a porcupine. Nathan is consumed by equal measures of self-loathing, anger and recrimination. But it wasn't always this way. Once, Nathan had a promising career as a literary novelist. He...
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SOURCE: Knapp, Mona. Review of Everything You Need, by A. L. Kennedy. World Literature Today 76, no. 2 (spring 2002): 151.
[In the following review, Knapp criticizes the improbable plot elements and Kennedy's overuse of profanity in Everything You Need.]
Nathan Staples is a successful novelist who lives on a coastal island in permanent retreat from the world. Unfortunately, there is no fleeing his tormented inner world, lavishly displayed over the course of 500 pages [in Everything You Need], a world driven by biting remorse, self-condemnation, and graphic plans for suicide. Why the desperation? Nathan is still in love with his former wife, Maura, who...
(The entire section is 546 words.)
SOURCE: Freeman, Hadley. “She's Donne It Again.” Observer (24 November 2002): 17.
[In the following review, Freeman enthusiastically praises Kennedy's descriptive and precise language in the short stories in Indelible Acts.]
It is, in all honesty, something of a relief to see A. L. Kennedy's name on the front of a collection of short stories as opposed to the handspan-sized novels which she has been thumping out. Kennedy's is a very concentrated prose: multiple connotations are compressed into every sentence, every description, without any dilution. But like a gourmet cake, it's impossible to digest portions any larger than a vignette slice without incurring a very...
(The entire section is 445 words.)
SOURCE: Review of Indelible Acts, by A. L. Kennedy. Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 9 (1 May 2003): 631-32.
[In the following review, the critic compliments Kennedy on her well-drawn characterizations in Indelible Acts.]
The complications of loving and the pains of estrangement are explored with restrained wit and emotion in this new collection [Indelible Acts] from the prizewinning Scottish author (Everything You Need, 2001, etc.).
The weakest of these dozen stories are generally those that don't develop beyond core expressions of longing, regret, or resentment. “Not Anything to Do with Love,” for example, though beautifully written,...
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Franklin, Ruth. “Desperate Characters.” New Republic 229, nos. 15-16 (13-20 October 2003): 50.
Franklin evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the stories in Indelible Acts.
Malin, Irving. Review of Indelible Acts, by A. L. Kennedy. Review of Contemporary Fiction 23, no. 3 (fall 2003): 138.
Malin lauds Kennedy's prose in Indelible Acts, claiming that the collection's stories “wonderfully capture the motivation, the tangled mechanics of love.”
Max, D. T. “Original Bliss.” New York Times Book Review (29 June 2003): 6.
(The entire section is 276 words.)