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
(The entire section is 74 words.)
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.
(The entire section is 182 words.)
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 macabre touch—with the graffito ‘GOD RULES OK.’ You get from the novel what you don't expect: Pearl Slattery (Mrs S) strikes a radical blow against the State. Towards the end she turns up for work at Snashfold's Sweet Factory to find locked gates and sleeping machinery. It is suggested that the plant has shut down due to the recession: a nail-file in the butterscotch and a plaster in the Jelly Teddies can't have helped. Anxious about the upkeep of her family, about her son's unpunctuality on his Youth Training Scheme and about her daughter who has eloped with the Bible-punchers, Pearl opts to go out in a blaze of glory—or rather a shop steward takes that option for her. Her arrest for criminal damage to Snashfold's property equips her...
(The entire section is 357 words.)
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 Shena Mackay's novels, it is also painfully sad.
For twenty years now (dust-jacket photographs suggest she began publishing around the age of fifteen), Mackay has written with exuberant glee and compassionate horror about people living in suburban sorriness and desolation, gasping for what Forster called “a breathing-hole for the human spirit”; and she has always held both the exuberance and the compassion suspended in her writing, not allowing them to settle into any new composition that might commit her either to a purely, surrealistically funny novel, or to a distressingly sad and serious one. This formula does not make for a seamless novel, and confines her to a minor genre; but it furnishes a great deal to be enjoyed...
(The entire section is 1114 words.)
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 last moment into some more sophisticated compound.
The title story is unusual in falling off from the eerie confidence of its opening: “It was a black evening bag sequined with salt. … This image, the wreckage of a dream beached on the morning, would not float away; as empty as an open shell, the black bivalve emitted a silent howl of despair; clouds passed through its mirror.” In the story, the dreamer—a writer of mystery novels—imagines the dream to be a fiction-germ stirring, and waits for it to root itself in a plot or a cast of characters. Mackay's parallel attempt to derive a story from the dream produces some fine passages of surrealistic unease, as the mystery writer encounters minor madness and coincidence...
(The entire section is 1072 words.)
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 stories—because here Mackay is not, I think, trying to be funny, though too many sentences do stretch longingly towards a snappy, witty conclusion. Real pain and madness lurk within almost all these stories: the pain and madness of loneliness, isolation and failure. And there is something almost plaintive in the tone—as though the stories themselves, or at least the characters in them, know and fear that they may be laughed at and feel they don't deserve it. Are we expected to laugh at poor Miss Agnew, doomed, by the death of her woman lover, to live out her life despised, along with an odd group of other social exiles, on an upper story of a seaside hotel in ‘Where the Carpet Ends’? Or at the agony of a writer's loss of faith in her...
(The entire section is 633 words.)
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 celebrity as a writer, and acts in a way to cause retrospective embarrassment to herself at a literary party. The heroine of the title story, also a writer (of detective fiction), has a difficult time on a train, where her overnight bag keeps getting mixed up with the bag of a woman in a synthetic fur coat who orders her gin and tonic by the double. We learn a little about the writer's past, and the accident that befell her parents on a clifftop. Did she cause it, or was the whole thing a dream? In any case, there remains the theatrical image of a handbag falling after its owner down the side of a cliff. ‘The black bivalve emitted a silent howl of despair.’ Shena Mackay needs to tone down her trimmings. At one point, we find a pier striding on...
(The entire section is 383 words.)
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, received particular critical acclaim. But, singular writer though she is, Mackay does not yet share the popularity of O'Brien, Brookner or Bainbridge, and it's hard to know why.
Dunedin is her seventh novel. The story begins in 1909, in New Zealand. Presbyterian minister Jack Mackenzie, with his wife and family, arrive from Scotland to start a new life. In Jack's case, this does not mean giving up old ways. He was ‘at his nicest when being botanical’. When it came to women, he continued in his customary churlish ways.
Mackay's evocation of small community life in New Zealand almost a century ago is masterful. Here we find Miss Kettle, spinster of the parish, whose days ‘spread out around her like...
(The entire section is 743 words.)
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 present: a world of dishevelled corner shops, cackling street life, battered parks and end-of-the-line public services. General pathology is stoked until it explodes in random and irrevocable acts.
Olive, a shopkeeper with a heart full to bursting, snatches a black baby in an indifferent tube crowd. Her brother William, a headmaster, retires early when one of his pupils, Pragna Patel, is murdered by an ambling psychotic on a school trip. Meanwhile, Jay—the product of an illicit liaison between the Reverend Mackenzie and a Maori woman—arrives in London and lands at Crystal Palace, to end up in a private enterprise prison.
Despite being politically on the side of the angels, Shena Mackay's aim is as...
(The entire section is 626 words.)
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 ingenuity that it becomes the focus for a whole world of dreams and disasters and guilty histories. And it is done with a special lightness of touch that lets you levitate out of the horrors, without in the least obscuring them. Here, for instance, is bad-tempered, menopausal and witty Olive Mackenzie, simply getting from A to B, sometime in 1989.
She drove past buildings faded like old music-hall queens, raddled, with dust in the folds of their skirts and broken fans, past people hitting their children while waiting for buses that would never come. Rain hit the windscreen, and at once it, and the road, were full of what they used to call dancing dollies; silver spirals pirouetting on glass and tarmac....
(The entire section is 854 words.)
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 often quietly animal. This imagery helps to make Dunedin as original as any of Mackay's earlier books. It was one of the few things not praised in the unexpected eulogy bestowed upon Mackay by the pit-bull of the literary pages Julie Burchill when, in Elle magazine, she dismissed other contemporary women authors as ‘a mannered, marginal bunch of second bananas’, and went on to proclaim Mackay as ‘the best writer in the world today’.
Plot has never been a central attraction in Mackay's fiction: she introduces topics, strands of subject-matter and characters, and lets them unravel, sometimes intertwine, often fade away and frequently get dumped. There is as much meander as development—appropriately,...
(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 “Cloud-Cuckoo-Land”, Roy Rowley's borrowed spectacles reveal, with sudden, harrowing clarity, the shoals of salmonella in the kitchen, the pills and bobbles on his wife's jumper, and, between the cuff of the tracksuit bottoms and his brogues, the nightmare of his own ankles:
Roy could not believe the knobs and nodules below the fringe of black-grey foliage, the wormcasts and bits of dead elastic. … “These aren't my feet,” he said. “Some old man has made off with Roy Rowley's feet while he wasn't looking and dumped these on me.”
More devastating still, the glasses expose to him his own pretensions as a do-gooder, as a “baggy-trousered philanthropist”. For a few hours, he...
(The entire section is 704 words.)
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 writing. She can evoke a mood or point up a meaning with one or two carefully chosen images—dead foliage clinging to a thorn bush, or plane trees in autumn standing like “dappled benign giraffes”. The humour in this hugely entertaining new book is often hilarious, over-the-top surreal; the prose style stays close to home, interweaving snatches of conversation, pop lyrics, jargon, advertising slogans, puns and scraps of poetry.
In one of the shorter pieces, “Glass”, a woman has to decide whether or not to leave her lover. She scrutinises every object she finds on her walk from “the little squares of opaque glass” in the pavement to the powder compact in the shop window, “a lid of butterflies' wings”. It is a...
(The entire section is 592 words.)
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). After Apocalypse comes judgement, and thereafter the thousand-year rule by Christ and a panoply of saints. As we approach the third millennium, however, any belief in resurrection has increasingly become the province of suicidal cults: for the rest of us the dancing on the Berlin Wall is over and we watch in growing alarm as the spectres of civil war, genocide, and nuclear vandalism slouch across the landscape of a disintegrating Europe. According to the historian Eric Hobsbawm:
the European 20th century has already ended with the collapse of the last great utopia of communism and the return of the map of Europe to a shape similar to that before the first world war.
(The entire section is 5815 words.)
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 manuscripts of the depilatory school”, who refers to April's attempt to stem the floodtide of weeds as “a spot of ethnic cleansing”. But for all her urban cynicism, Jaz is really Janette from Northumbria, “a damp fungus grown from a spore blown on to London plaster”, while April is “a brittler accretion, but as rootless”. The pair are as diasporic as the pheasant berry, which “seeds itself everywhere, leaving dead canes where it cannot stand the competition, that rattle and creak”.
The mood of creeping disaffection is premonitory. It prepares us for April's return to the Kent village where she grew up in a teashop called the Copper Kettle. English teashops are as immemorial as English weeds. They suggest a 1950s...
(The entire section is 827 words.)
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, threatening to break the friendship and ensuring their ultimate separation. For Ruby the abuse is brutal and physical and comes from her own parents. For April, the narrator, it's more subtle. She falls prey to white-haired Mr Greenidge, the “charming man” who walks his ailing wife's dachshund through the village and lures April into a world equally private but infinitely more damaging, of stolen old man's kisses and pathetic trysts.
There is an assurance to Shena Mackay's prose that is up and running from the first line. Her descriptions and evocations of place and atmosphere are very fine indeed. “We forced open the door,” says April, speaking of that first breathless entry into the secret railway carriage, “and...
(The entire section is 533 words.)
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, Streatham and Sydenham, Norwood and Herne Hill: her richly subversive Dunedin, in which her disconcerting talent was given its head, took place within these confines. The nostalgia, in the present case, expands to take in Kent, equally unfashionable, and the village of Stonebridge, where her protagonist, April Harlency, grows up after her parents, gallant losers in the licensed trade, take over the Copper Kettle Tea Room.
And that is it, the story of an almost happy childhood, into which the occasional disturbed adult intrudes, posing problems for April and her friend Ruby Richards, daughter of the landlord of The Rising Sun. April and Ruby are heroines, with the peculiar loyalty and truthfulness of inseparables, free to...
(The entire section is 744 words.)
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 dramas of the English middle class.
Mackay (pronounced to rhyme with “reply”) is the most mysterious of the six authors to be shortlisted for this year's Booker. This is partly because she attends fewer literary parties than she is invited to: she lives in an outer-London neighborhood that is beyond the reach of the tube. But it is not only her seclusion that has maintained her mystery—she also doesn't belong to a literary clique that might spread gossip about her.
In person, Mackay, 52, is a striking figure, whose beautiful white pageboy haircut and quiet voice lend her an air of invulnerability; it somehow takes 10 minutes to absorb the fact that she is also nervous. Mackay answers PW's...
(The entire section is 2044 words.)
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 hedge and telegraph poles' tightropes.” Few readers can help but see their other self slip from between the pages. By the time they catch their breath at this compact novel's end, they will both welcome and regret the inevitable journey back to adulthood.
Deservedly, The Orchard on Fire was short-listed for last year's Booker Prize. For American readers, it can be an introduction to Mackay, a Scottish-born writer living in London and previously published but little-known in the United States. Mackay's publisher says it “aims to change that” with this novel, yet it makes a couple of irritating mistakes about the story on the inside jacket. No matter, as reading The Orchard on Fire (and Mackay) for the first...
(The entire section is 767 words.)
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 Station Hill at night … because everybody knew there was a man with a sack and a knife waiting to jump out on you”), they push the envelope. Ruby takes the lead; she knows that terror begins at home.
Their glorious alliance can't alleviate the solitude in which each girl faces her own powerlessness. Neither April nor her loving but preoccupied parents can do much about Ruby's troubles (a father who belts her, a mother who justifies it). And April can't tell Ruby of her own panic at the behavior of Mr. Greenidge, the dapper gentleman with the dachshund and the dying wife, who lures her to tea and plies her with hideous kisses.
Its jacket slathered with predictable references to “coming of age” and...
(The entire section is 752 words.)
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 door demanding the return of the finger. The dog ate it, John lies, stricken. Rather than remark on the manifest absence of a dog, the butcher inveighs furiously at the idea of anyone feeding good meat to a pet.
With this beginning, a reader will expect An Advent Calendar to be a work of absurdist humor and perhaps—bearing in mind Shena Mackay's British (Scottish) nationality and the purposeful use of such humor by writers like Joe Orton and Brendan Behan—of social satire as well.
There is social commentary in Calendar, but it is something more desolate than satire. The humor is mainly dark, but there is nothing absurdist about the struggling and penniless young family of John, his wife...
(The entire section is 1045 words.)
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 fiction.
Shena Mackay sets the tone immediately. John, a young married man in difficult economic circumstances, stops by the butcher's for a bit of meat to share with his uncle, Cecil, with whom he and his small, unhappy family are temporarily lodging. He buys ground meat, which at home he tosses into spaghetti sauce. “Piece of gristle,” he remarks to Cecil, and pushes the offending morsel to the side of his plate. “I'll have it,” Cecil says and gobbles up the last of the grub.
Gristle, indeed. That hard piece of meat was a human finger, sliced from Mick, the butcher, as he wielded his cleaver. When John comprehends what has happened, he feels compelled to atone for Mick's loss but can only shout at...
(The entire section is 834 words.)
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.
The opening in question is a private view of works by John Crane, a painter whose credentials—British, Academic, representational, painterly, given to forming artistic communities in English seaside towns—ensure him a place at the furthest conceivable remove from the centre of fashion. It is an opening that, we are told on the dust jacket, “will change [the characters'] lives for ever”, an odd assertion in view of the fact that there is nobody there whose life is changed by it at all. Certainly not the painter Lyris Crane; her life was changed for ever when the death of her husband, John, turned her into the Artist's Widow of the title. For her, this party is the occasion when all the humiliations of her new position are...
(The entire section is 965 words.)
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, their domestic arrangements, their clothes. Altogether it is a Dickensian assemblage, vivid, lively, quirky and woven into a network that stretches from Dulwich to Maida Vale, and from Tufnell Park to the art galleries in Mayfair. Every bit of the novel is either topographical or topical, or both: like Hoxton, the new cool place for artists to have their studios.
Mackay has an uncommon ability to focus on environmental details and find evocative metaphors for them. Her prose, though, tends to go what her characters would call ‘OTT’, switching from relentless parody of the latest jargon to passages of the purplest prose. ‘The cotoneaster, gemmate with red berries, had spread in a peacock's tail over the grass’ is...
(The entire section is 1318 words.)
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 as a slippery eel while her philandering father is likened to a weevil.
Writing with what reads like personal bitterness, Mackay describes the branch of publishing to which Nancy belongs: ‘All those people with their fat salaries [who] have no conception of life at the other end of their industries. They take more holidays than hairdressers. They should remember who pays for their fine clothes. They pick people up when it suits them, make them jump through hoops and then toss them aside.’
Perhaps Mackay was put off the publicity game during the hoopla which accompanied the nomination of her previous novel, The Orchard on Fire, for the Booker Prize of 1996. Although she did not win, the...
(The entire section is 957 words.)
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 that English writers have worked against the taut, “well-crafted” model of the short story. The best English stories, Byatt claimed, “pack together comedy and tragedy, farce and delicacy, elegance and the grotesque”.
This is an apt description of the work of Shena Mackay, who may be claimed for the Scots but who in her themes and settings is predominantly English, and increasingly metropolitan. (Born in Edinburgh, Mackay was brought up and educated in Kent.) Since the early 1980s, Mackay has produced several acclaimed collections of stories, pursuing the form with the same cool care and strange intensity she has brought to novels like Dunedin (1992) or The Orchard on Fire (1996). Her stories are dark,...
(The entire section is 1076 words.)
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 relied on to tell one far more about the turbulent passions and twisted motives of her characters than many a jumbo of a novel by a writer less concise and adroit.
In this latest collection [The World's Smallest Unicorn], many of these characters belong to the world either of entertainment or of books. But in those worlds their positions are nearly always humble, even humiliating. In ‘Crossing the Border’, one of the funniest and most poignant of the stories (Mackay's stories are usually both those things), a feisty young woman pays a visit to the Grimaldi Home for Retired Clowns, where her great-uncle, his undistinguished career long over, has been incarcerated. Sadly, she arrives too late, death having already...
(The entire section is 713 words.)
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 month), and with a paean from Julie Burchill to amplify her blurbs (Burchill recently called her “the best writer in the world today”), Mackay cannot quite bring herself to bustle on the circuits.
As she told me recently: “I do think the whole climate for writers these days is so vulgar. It's all so money-led. I hate going into book shops and seeing, you know, the Top Ten Bestsellers, a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. I just find the whole thing so vulgar: the books pages, and the way writers are portrayed—snippets in diaries about so-and-so's advance. It all just creates a climate of anxiety for the majority of writers and gets them into the feeling that it's all a competition”.
(The entire section is 3914 words.)
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.
Mackay, who has written a number of novels, including The Orchard on Fire and, more recently, The Artist's Widow, draws deliciously eccentric characters—Uncle Bob in “The Index of Embarrassment,” for example, who believes “that soap and water destroy the skin's essential oils,” and Tusker Laidlaw, the official Bore of the Wilderness Club. Several are involved in writing: an aspiring young novelist, a journalist in disguise on a secret assignment, a young woman setting out to write the biography of her famous uncle, an editor eager to reprint the works of an aging, reclusive author. Their efforts to communicate, however, never quite succeed, and the stories are full of misunderstandings and misapplied blame....
(The entire section is 837 words.)
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 does not write long books, nor polemical ones; it is hard to say what any given novel by her is ‘about’, although various fiercely held convictions may, from time to time, be discerned. They are primarily about human beings living their lives, rendered with increasing mastery and a hard-won truth; and there is nothing harder in the world to defend than that. In her prime, she reminds me sometimes of a very different novelist, Elizabeth Taylor; both have a rare gift of making their characters interesting whether their acts and situations are objectively so or not. She can make you watch a girl walking up a country road with nothing much at the end of it; and that takes some skill.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty for the...
(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 sweet.
The venue is the Nautilus, an eccentric house designed in the 1930s which resembles a seashell and whose rooms look like a shell's chambers. Set amid heavy gravel in which an anchor and chain have been whimsically placed, it seems as if the house should be on a seashore, but it is in fact in the London suburbs. This was established as the location of a Bloomsbury-ish bohemian community of yore, with lavish bar, magnificent library and a printing press long since fallen into disuse.
It now houses just two of its elderly pioneers. Francis Campion is a querulous minor poet, worrying away at slights and glancing condescensions in various biographies and literary histories; Celeste Zylberstein is of Jewish...
(The entire section is 826 words.)
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.
(The entire section is 60 words.)