Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.