Shena Mackay 1944-
Scottish novelist, short-story and novella writer, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Mackay's career through 2003.
Mackay is recognized as a talented novelist and short fiction writer. Her work focuses on eccentric and complex individuals struggling with poverty, alienation, and despair. Critics praise her fiction for its dark and absurdist humor and its adroit use of detail.
Mackay was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1944. When she was a young child, her family settled in Shoreham, Kent, England. Later the family moved to southeast London, where she grew up in an urbane, literary environment. Unhappy in school, she left when she was sixteen years old. Mackay was already interested in writing, and won a poetry prize right after she left school. She worked in an antique shop owned by the parents of art critic David Sylvester and managed by playwright Frank Marcus. Through her friendship with these two men, Mackay was introduced to the London art world of the 1960s; she became acquainted with such renowned artists as Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Henry Moore, and David Hockney. Many critics have noted the painterly qualities of Mackay's fiction. In 1964 a collection of two of her novellas, Dust Falls on Eugene Schlumburger and Toddler on the Run, was published. She was an immediate sensation in London literary and social circles. After her marriage in 1964, she published less frequently. In fact, after the publication of her novel An Advent Calendar in 1971, she did not publish another book until 1983. She did continue to write short stories during that period. In 1980 she became a friend to novelist Brigid Brophy, who helped her find a publisher for her book, A Bowl of Cherries (1984). Her 1995 novel, The Orchard on Fire, was on the shortlist for the prestigious Booker Prize. Mackay lives in south London, and remains a well-established literary figure in England.
In Mackay's first novel, Music Upstairs (1965), she explores the bohemian life of 1960s London through the emotional and sexual relationship between a young English girl from the suburbs and her two landlords, Pam and Lenny. The Advent Calendar touches on such controversial topics as cannibalism, pedophilia, adultery, and animal cruelty. In A Bowl of Cherries, Mackay explores the issue of redemption through the relationship of twin brothers: Rex, a successful novelist, and Stanley, his poor and friendless brother. When it is revealed that Rex's literary success is a fraud—his popular novel was actually written by Stanley—a wealth of family secrets is exposed. Considered one of her best works, Redhill Rococo (1986) is an amusing story of the love affair between the ex-con Luke and the prostitute Pearl Slattery. Mackay's next novel, Dunedin (1992), chronicles the hard-luck lives of the Mackenzie family from 1902 New Zealand to 1989 London. The Orchard on Fire focuses on the intense friendship between two English girls, April and Ruby. Both are being abused; Ruby is physically beaten by her father, and April is being molested by an elderly man in the neighborhood. The novel ends with an embittered April, now much older, reflecting on the importance of her friendship with Ruby. Mackay's 1998 novel, The Artist's Widow, is set within the contemporary art scene in London. Her latest novel, Heligoland (2000), follows the lives of several aging artists living in a communal, utopian community. Critics praise the sharp and complex cast of characters in the book. In addition to her novels, Mackay has received favorable critical attention for her short stories. Collections such as Babies in Rhinestones and Other Stories (1983) and The World's Smallest Unicorn: Stories (1999) highlight what critics consider Mackay's satirical view of modern culture as well as her poignant and insightful perspective on human relationships.
Mackay has been widely praised for her lovely prose style and her intelligent and evocative fiction. In particular, reviewers applaud her effective use of satire, dark humor, eroticism, and dialogue. Her powers of description are considered well developed, and many commentators have discussed the accurate and shrewd use of detail in her novels, novellas, and short stories. Critics contend that she creates compassionate and vivid portrayals of people living in desolation, isolation, and desperation. However, some reviewers have accused Mackay of failing to create likable characters, particularly male ones, and denigrate the bleak circumstances and plaintive tone of her work. Her combination of absurdist humor, pathos, and compassion has led some commentators to compare her work with that of Charles Dickens. Mackay is regarded as a distinctive and gifted voice in contemporary English literature.
Dust Falls on Eugene Schlumburger and Toddler on the Run (novellas) 1964
Music Upstairs (novel) 1965
Old Crow (novel) 1967
An Advent Calendar (novel) 1971
Babies in Rhinestones and Other Stories (short stories) 1983
A Bowl of Cherries (novel) 1984
Redhill Rococo (novel) 1986
Dreams of Dead Women's Handbags (short stories) 1987
Dunedin (novel) 1992
The Laughing Academy (short stories) 1993
Collected Short Stories (short stories) 1994
The Orchard on Fire (novel) 1995
The Artist's Widow (novel) 1998
The World's Smallest Unicorn: Stories (short stories) 1999
Heligoland (novel) 2000
SOURCE: Jordan, Clive. “Dislocations.” New Statesman and Society 82 (2 July 1971): 24.
[In the following excerpt, Jordan provides a favorable review of An Advent Calendar.]
An Advent Calendar provides a slight but raffishly entertaining excursion to the rundown territory Shena Mackay has staked out as her own. Here again, observed rather less cruelly than before, is the quagmire of a ghastly urban sub-culture. ‘Marguerite lay in bed thinking of the long road of days that led to a goat's dripping beard in East Finchley.’ However improbable, the logic of the road of days is remorseless. Here it brings an impoverished young family to spend the pre-Christmas period with a decrepit uncle, the goat's owner. The resultant complexities include the wife's affair with the goat's vet, and the seduction of a dreadful 15-year-old schoolgirl by a middle-aged poet. I particularly admire the way Shena Mackay makes it appear that both people and things have been formed from the same messy organic substance. The ‘wild white drowned hair of the spaghetti’ is not too fanciful when we already know that the meat sauce contains a human finger.
SOURCE: Barnes, Hugh. “Scenes from British Life.” London Review of Books 8, no. 2 (6 February 1986): 7.
[In the following excerpt, Barnes offers a mixed review of Redhill Rococo.]
Redhill Rococo experiments in a little-known genre: the ‘Condition of Surrey’ novel. The main feature of the style is the barrage of acronyms and initials facing the reader: DHSS, YTS, HMP, C of E, WPC, SDP; even UCCA plays a part and among vegetarians B12 gets an honourable mention. At PTA meetings mothers abbreviate each other blithely, into Mrs H-J or Mrs S; and trendy Christians daub their surroundings—a Ricky Nelson poster comes in for special punishment, a...
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SOURCE: Duchêne, Anne. “The Distant Sound of Breaking Glass.” Times Literary Supplement (14 February 1986): 163.
[In the following review, Duchêne commends the combination of humor and sadness she finds in Redhill Rococo.]
In Shena Mackay's new novel [Redhill Rococo], the fuddled vicar, finding himself at a wedding reception, toasts “the horse and groom”; the local librarian gives the over-seventies double fines for returning books late, as they should know better; the local paper reports “CO-OP RAIDED: NOTHING TAKEN”; a cookery book is called “Take aLeek”. … It all sounds rather like a script for The Two Ronnies; and yet, like all...
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SOURCE: Mars-Jones, Adam. “Running through the Recipes.” Times Literary Supplement (21 August 1987): 897.
[In the following review, Mars-Jones offers a mixed assessment of the stories in Dreams of Dead Women's Handbags, asserting that Mackay's “faults are intermittent, her virtues—her eye, her inventiveness—constant.”]
Moving as it does from the sombre to the absurdly trivial without becoming unambiguously comic, the splendid title of Shena Mackay's new collection [Dreams of Dead Women's Handbags] well represents the tonal range of the book. Sometimes she invokes the simplicities of melodrama or pathos, sometimes she transforms them at the...
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SOURCE: Maitland, Sara. “Pain Killer.” New Statesman 114, no. 2944 (28 August 1987): 21-2.
[In the following review, Maitland derides the plaintive tone and psychological density of the stories in Dreams of Dead Women's Handbags.]
Shena Mackay has an uncomfortably accurate and shrewd eye for the details of bourgeois life, and an appropriately shrewd and elegant style to tell us what she has seen. This is a combination that suits the satirist well and in Redhill Rococo, her last novel, she showed how well she could handle satire: hilarity without loss of compassion is a rare and lovely thing.
But it works less well in this collection of...
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SOURCE: Craig, Patricia. “Getting On.” London Review of Books 9, no. 16 (17 September 1987): 18.
[In the following excerpt, Craig offers a mixed review of the stories included in Dreams of Dead Women's Handbags.]
The women characters of Shena Mackay [in Dreams of Dead Women's Handbags] are apt to get into an overwrought state: domestic annoyances and shortcomings conspire to agitate them until they lash out with the nearest weapon to hand—in one instance, a vegetable marrow. The unsatisfactoriness of life is something they all know well and resent. One spends her days in an out-of-season hotel full of society's rejects; another regrets her dwindled...
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SOURCE: Huth, Angela. “Accents Yet Unknown.” Spectator 269, no. 8556 (4 July 1992): 30-1.
[In the following review, Huth lauds Mackay's eye for detail in Dunedin, but faults the unevenness of the novel.]
It is a puzzling fact in the literary world that while some writers' names lodge in the public mind from the start, others, for all their eligibility, remain for years—sometimes for ever—‘vaguely heard of’ rather than a public name.
One of those upon whom the unfairness of fashion has rendered this disservice is Shena Mackay, first published 28 years ago. Her last collection of stories, Dreams of Dead Women's Handbags,...
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SOURCE: King, Chris Savage. “Urban Jungle.” New Statesman and Society 5, no. 210 (10 July 1992): 34.
[In the following review, King draws comparisons between Dunedin and the work of Charles Dickens.]
When the dust has settled on the millennium and readers want to find out how people lived in our age, they will discover all they need to know in the work of Shena Mackay. In Dunedin, the Mackenzies, a Scottish Presbyterian family who landed in New Zealand in 1909, are tracked down to their dispersed scions in the chaotic mess of 1980s South London. The suspended, ominous drift of middle-class Edwardian life is harshly contrasted with the more precarious...
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SOURCE: Sage, Lorna. “A Light Touch with the Horrors.” Times Literary Supplement (10 July 1992): 21.
[In the following review, Sage describes Dunedin as “exuberant, cruel, depressed and hilarious by turns—a manic-depressive book, all ups and downs.”]
The street-theatre of “community care” and the brand-new towering monuments to recession have inspired some interesting London novels, from Michael Moorcock's carnivalesque Mother London to Penelope Lively's brittle, see-through City of the Mind—but none has quite the high-spirited style of Dunedin. Shena Mackay writes about South East London with such penetrating familiarity and...
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SOURCE: Clapp, Susannah. “Bully Off.” London Review of Books 21, no. 5 (5 November 1992): 28-9.
[In the following favorable review of Dunedin, Clapp elucidates the defining characteristics of Mackay's fiction.]
Shena Mackay has written the first anti-speciesist novel. Dunedin does not feature animals in any large anthropomorphic or allegorical capacity, and there is hardly a pet in sight. But what happens at the edges of Mackay's novels, what is taken for granted, has always been vital in establishing their distinctive flavour and their point. Dunedin is about London, poverty and pinched lives, but the background imagery is consistently, though...
(The entire section is 1836 words.)
SOURCE: Broughton, Trev. “Affirmation of Life.” Times Literary Supplement (30 July 1993): 21.
[In the following favorable review, Broughton identifies the unifying theme of the stories in The Laughing Academy to be “the limits of responsibility and compassion.”]
Here are nine perfectly crafted stories from a master of her medium. Shena Mackay's most striking characters are an unlikely, unprepossessing bunch—dry old sticks and wallflowers, the weedy and the seedy—but she somehow confers on them vivid beauty and coherence. The most benighted old codger, the frumpiest drudge, acquire a curious but unmistakable dignity and stature. In...
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SOURCE: Cooke, Judy. “City Lights.” New Statesman and Society (30 July 1993): 39.
[In the following positive review of The Laughing Academy, Cooke underscores Mackay's widespread appeal as a fiction writer.]
You have to laugh at life's absurdities. It's better than being taught how to cope in the Laughing Academy, aka the Funny Farm, remembered fearfully by one of the most vulnerable characters in these stories [of The Laughing Academy] as “a sort of stale amyl-nitratey whiff, a sniff of sad, sour institutional air or a thick meaty odour.”
Shena Mackay's keen ear for dialogue is complemented by the precision of her descriptive...
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SOURCE: Smith, Penny. “Hell Innit: The Millennium in Alasdair Gray's Lanark, Martin Amis's London Fields, and Shena Mackay's Dunedin.” Essays and Studies 48 (1995): 115-28.
[In the following essay, Smith comments on the influences of World War II in Mackay's Dunedin, Martin Amis's London Fields, and Alasdair Gray's Lanark.]
While it can be argued that mere fin de siecle inevitably courts disillusionment, the recognition that there is to be no brave new world just around the corner, it is useful to keep in mind that ‘for most of human history the idea of the millennium itself has been essentially hopeful’ (O'Toole, 29)....
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SOURCE: Emck, Katy. “Down Rabbit Lane.” Times Literary Supplement (14 June 1996): 22.
[In the following review, Emck deems The Orchard on Fire as “a bittersweet, gentle novel, not given to grandstanding or preaching, but shot through with humour and compassion.”]
Shena MacKay's new novel [The Orchard on Fire] opens in an elegiac mood. April, a middle-aged teacher, a divorcee, sits brooding in her low-rental London garden on one of those ruefully lovely summer evenings when every cranny of decayed wall erupts with dust-covered plant-life. Her reflection is broken by her neighbour, the jauntily-named Jaz, the author “of several unpublished...
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SOURCE: Birch, Carol. “Remembered Ills.” New Statesman 125, no. 4288 (21 June 1996): 45-6.
[In the following review, Birch offers a mixed review of The Orchard on Fire.]
At the heart of The Orchard on Fire is an intense best-friendship between two little girls in a fictional Kent village in 1953. Kingfishers flash on the river, the meadows are lush with wild flowers and the bloom is on the plums in the forgotten orchard where they have their den in an abandoned railway carriage. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship, cemented by pacts, codes and secret understandings.
Over this rural idyll hangs the awful guillotine shadow of child abuse,...
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SOURCE: Brookner, Anita. “A Memory of Yesterday's Pleasures.” Spectator 276, no. 8763 (29 June 1996): 35-6.
[In the following positive review of The Orchard on Fire, Brookner contends that “in her misleadingly straightforward novel the author has set out a rite of passage which will leave few readers unaffected.”]
It can be no accident that on reading the first few pages of this haunting novel [The Orchard on Fire] one is enveloped by a feeling of nostalgia, not for Provence, not for Tuscany, but for hot sun in a London garden, and a July evening spent with a book under a dusty tree. Shena Mackay is the celebrant of unfashionable suburbs,...
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SOURCE: Field, Michele. “Shena Mackay: The Menace of the Domestic.” Publishers Weekly 243, no. 49 (2 December 1996): 36-8.
[In the following positive review of The Orchard on Fire, Field praises Mackay's sense of the macabre and provides an overview of her literary career.]
The annals of contemporary fiction are full of authors of highly praised but little-known books. Few have produced a body of work that is as fresh and evocative as the 11 volumes that Shena Mackay has written since 1964. Her latest, The Orchard on Fire, a Booker Prize nominee, recently published Stateside by Moyer-Bell, displays her sharp eye for the macabre and humorous domestic...
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SOURCE: Chong, Denise. “In the Playground of Good and Evil.” Washington Post Book World (28 January 1997): D10.
[In the following positive review, Chong views The Orchard on Fire as a charming and evocative novel.]
You can have a near out-of-body experience with Shena Mackay's latest novel, The Orchard on Fire. In its opening pages the narrator, April Harlency, remembers her childhood: “I was never a particularly balletic or acrobatic child, but sometimes when I was happy I could see another self slip from my body and run leaping and doing cartwheels, somersaulting through the air beside me. I almost glimpse her now, running along an undulating...
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SOURCE: Clausen, Jan. “Passionate Friendship.” Women's Review of Books 14, nos. 10-11 (July 1997): 35.
[In the following review, Clausen surveys the strengths and weaknesses of The Orchard on Fire.]
When eight-year-old April Harlency, “born into the licensed trade,” arrives in Stonebridge, Kent, the first person she meets is red-haired Ruby Richards, busy setting toilet paper afire in the ladies' room of her parents' pub. As the Harlencies settle in to run the Copper Kettle Tearoom, the two girls form a passionate, nearly seamless friendship. Though plagued by a gendered terror of public spaces (“None of the village girls would have dreamed of walking down...
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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Chop Shop.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (26 October 1997): 2.
[In the following review, Eder commends the absurdist humor and social satire he finds in An Advent Calendar.]
John is buying chopped meat in his rundown North London neighborhood when Mick, the butcher's assistant, lands his cleaver on his own finger. In an uproar of blood, towels and hysteria, the finger somehow falls into the meat grinder.
An hour or so later, John's semi-invalid Uncle Cecil comes to the table with an anticipatory grunt of “lovely grub” and guzzles up the meat sauce despite the odd bits of bone and gristle. Soon the butcher is at the...
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SOURCE: Yardley, Jonathan. “Bleak, Blue-Collar and British.” Washington Post Book World (29 October 1997): D2.
[In the following review, Yardley regards An Advent Calendar as a proletariat novel.]
No doubt about it, this is a very strange novel. Written by a British novelist who has published numerous other books, it ventures into territory not often occupied by the novel, which is in essence a middle-class institution. An Advent Calendar by contrast is working-class fiction: not proletarian, guided by political and/or ideological purposes, but descriptive and empathetic, a look inside a world that is familiar to few regular readers of conventional...
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SOURCE: Shulman, Nicola. “Working the Party.” Times Literary Supplement (10 July 1998): 23.
[In the following review, Shulman compares The Artist's Widow to the work of Charles Dickens and praises Mackay as a highly talented novelist.]
It is traditional for novelists to write about painters, and with good reason. Paint makes manifest the invisible concerns of the writer; and the task of describing the painter at his work does not overload the burden of authorial research. So when Shena Mackay opens her new novel [The Artist's Widow]—about a painter—with an opening, it seems almost a nod of recognition to this arrangement of long standing....
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SOURCE: Annan, Gabriele. “Lyris, Clovis, Nat and Candy.” London Review of Books (16 July 1998): 19.
[In the following review, Annan surveys the broad range of characters in The Artist's Widow.]
Shena Mackay's latest novel [The Artist's Widow] invites you to observe the Zeitgeist of 1997 addling the brains and hearts of quite a large number of Londoners. They seem an incongruous lot, but with her usual ingenuity she manages to portion out the action among them and to make them connect (not necessarily in the Forsterian sense). They tend to come in pairs locked in ideological conflict, which doesn't have to be verbal: it can be expressed in their behaviour,...
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SOURCE: Fairweather, Natasha. “It May Look Like a Sack of Cement to You. To Me, It's a Dead Sheep.” Observer (19 July 1998): 14.
[In the following review, Fairweather considers The Artist's Widow to be a disappointing novel.]
At some juncture in her lengthy career as a writer, Shena Mackay must have encountered the publisher's publicist from hell. For in her new novel, The Artist's Widow, Mackay sketches a vicious cameo portrait of Nancy Carmody, the glossy, publicist daughter of a Conservative MP who lost his seat in the 1997 election. More interested in her funeral clothes than the reasons behind the suicide of one of her authors, Nancy is described...
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SOURCE: Brownrigg, Sylvia. “The Objects of Life.” Times Literary Supplement (5 March 1999): 22.
[In the following review, Brownrigg views Mackay as a talented short story writer and touches on the key thematic concerns of the stories in The World's Smallest Unicorn.]
A common, self-deprecating wisdom holds that the English (with the acknowledged exception of V. S. Pritchett) are not much good at short stories; that the nation has produced no master of the form with the calibre of Chekhov or Raymond Carver. A. S. Byatt went some way to correcting this gloomy picture in her rich anthology compiled for Oxford last year. There, she put forward a convincing argument...
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SOURCE: King, Francis. “Laughter and Tears.” Spectator 282, no. 8903 (27 March 1999): 36.
[In the following mixed review, King notes the humor and poignancy of the tales collected in The World's Smallest Unicorn.]
As one of the most gifted contenders in the literary Olympic games, Shena Mackay has always struck me as being a sparkish, spunky sprinter rather than a patient, persistent long-distance runner. Her novels may at first seem slight, sometimes even insubstantial; but their specific gravity is so high that long after one has read them they still leave a dense residue in one's mind. Even her shortest short stories can, like those of Jane Gardam, be usually...
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SOURCE: Hamilton, Ian. “Bohemian Rhapsodist.” Guardian (10 July 1999): 6.
[In the following essay, Hamilton traces Mackay's life and literary development.]
Shena Mackay has never been one for trendy self-promotion. Like Lyris, the neglected painter in her most recent novel, The Artist's Widow, Mackay would—on balance—rather be overlooked than vulgarly exposed. “A publicist's nightmare” is how her own publicists have now and then described her, and Mackay takes a certain pride in their exasperation.
Even today, with 10 highly-praised books in print (two, The Artist's Widow, and Dunedin, are out in Vintage paperback this...
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SOURCE: Croft, Barbara. “Tangled Tales.” Women's Review of Books 18, no. 8 (May 2001): 21-2.
[In the following review, Croft contends that the stories in The World's Smallest Unicorn are “unique, bittersweet stories, full of fun but far from light reading.”]
The stories of Scottish author Shena Mackay [in The World's Smallest Unicorn] are a lot more cheerful, but she too has an eye for the bizarre: an old folks home for retired clowns, a world traveler who ingests historic monuments, an eccentric old man's catalogue of life's embarrassments, an aging theatrical couple who act out the subtle jealousies of the film A Star Is Born....
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SOURCE: Hensher, Philip. “Radiance in Suburbia.” Spectator 291, no. 9107 (22 February 2003): 35-6.
[In the following review, Hensher assesses Mackay's literary accomplishment and asserts that Heligoland “has a deceptive simplicity which conceals great art, and it manages to convey a big emotional journey in a relatively brief span.”]
Shena Mackay has had a difficult and unconventional career, and it has taken a long time for most readers to register what a powerful and original novelist she is. Several things have counted, unfairly, against her: her subjects are not just domestic, but often suburban, which she presents with a disconcerting rapture. She...
(The entire section is 1605 words.)
SOURCE: Bradshaw, Peter. “Muddling Through.” Guardian (1 March 2003): 26.
[In the following review, Bradshaw lauds as gorgeous the prose of Heligoland.]
Shena Mackay's elegant, elusive new book [Heligoland] sketches out the circumstances of marginal and defeated lives in what are almost short stories, loosely threaded like beads on a string. Her theme is elderly or middle-aged people living fretfully in genteel obscurity, but doing so in such a way that they seem like bright, observant but powerless children. This is drawn so playfully and so compassionately—and with such consistently beautiful writing—that the experience is mysteriously comic and...
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Allardice, Lisa. “Nautilus, Not Nice.” Observer (2 March 2003): 17.
Provides a negative assessment of Heligoland, maintaining that the novel might work better as a short story.
Additional information on Mackay's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 104; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 88; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 231; and Literature Resource Center.
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