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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 the stories “intimate narratives”. The narratives are of ordinary people, women mostly, who strive to make the best of unglamorous lives. Some are victims without rage, of poverty, abuse, circumstance. Some are married to unsatisfactory, even brutal husbands, one is HIV positive, one or two are having lonely and forgettable affairs. They slowly reveal the unhappy past and the undertow of feeling in their ordinary lives.
Perhaps as a result of this content, dreariness pervades even the comic ones—dreariness of lives and places, exacerbated by a lack of intensity in the tone, which alters little throughout. A. L. Kennedy writes with Lowland Scots phrasing, but without its punchiness.
Kennedy does sometimes leave the everyday of Glasgow or Dundee: in “Translations”, the Fathermacdonalt is what the tribespeople call the Scottish missionary living in their South American jungle, and the boy he has called Andrew is confused between his own and this new culture of Hell; “The Role of Notable Silences in Scottish History” is a rambling but comic discourse on public transport by a character whose hobby is to write obituaries of the living. However, there is in the title-story a statement of intent. In this the narrator misses her train and returns home to find her husband, whom she once loved tenderly, in bed with someone else. She fetches the carving knife to him, and ends up in hospital with her fingers cut. The point of the story is not this tawdry action, which is reported as if from a long way away. It is that “there are too many people alive today for us to notice every single one”. The stories act as a memorial for the silent majority who “live their lives in the best way they can, and still leave nothing behind”. Kennedy is a compassionate writer, who strives to feel her way within her characters and allow them to speak their lives. “Please God”, they say, “help us to be good to each other.” Though empathetic, the stories eventually have a sameness about them. Together they seem not to lend each other strength, but rather to sap it. The result is a lack of dynamism, as if the writer were unable yet to divine her source of energy and channel it into strong work.
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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 stories—shines out fitfully, sometimes intensifying towards the surreal but just as often fading before...
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the returning, hazy sense of pain which is the book's [Looking for the Possible Dance] dominant theme.
A student in the 1980s, Margaret has learned to cope with limited resources. “One more cut, Thatcher's throat!” the university crowd chants and Margaret joins in, somewhat reluctantly. She has already defined her generation's malaise: “Pointless gestures were all they had left to make.” Her job back home in a community centre gives her a sense of achievement that seems to contradict the prevailing pessimism—until she is sacked for being too good at it.
Her love affair with Colin, a fellow student, is over romantically as soon as it begins, and yet continues towards marriage almost as if some moral imperative has been stated and accepted. Her perceptions are conveyed in fine, bright detail but always against a sense of loss. “The little moon was a painful white as she looked up, like a hole in the sky, leading through to a very bright room.”
I like this first novel so much for the quality of its writing from page to page. A L Kennedy may be tempted to settle for more coherence in her next book, but I hope not. The unevenness in tone is an essential part of her originality. Margaret's story, an elegy for the father who died when she was 23, laments that his life—abandoned by her mother, solely responsible for his child—was as hard and unfulfilling as her own threatens to become.
This may suggest a very gloomy read. Not so, since the father-daughter relationship is described here with a veracity that celebrates them both. Margaret's father told her to live, “everything else is a waste of time”. With a wry obedience, Margaret observes that life consists largely of suffering but she refuses to be defeated. There are other realities.
The author's humanism is tested to the limit when Colin, part of the drug culture, gets caught up in a criminal ring. He is savagely punished. Even more telling, because it is so true to mundane experience, is the conversation between Margaret and the severely handicapped youth whom she meets on a train journeying south, her temporary escape from the pressures of the love affair and the job.
Once his zealous mentors have left for the buffet car, James communicates as best he can in heartrendingly stroppy snatches of print. Back with his mother, he is made biddable and Margaret's address, tucked into his wheelchair at their parting, is soon allowed to be lost. Kennedy writes about such encounters sparingly and with sensitivity; she makes the language work.
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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 made apparent through a disordered series of memories and associations. These centre on her relationships with her father, who brought her up alone, and with her lover, Colin who disappeared as they were on the point of settling down. She has returned home, her father has died and she is working in a community drop-in centre when Colin reappears.
Just as tension and drama lie beneath the surface of apparently ordinary lives, Kennedy's prose is deceptively quiet. While Colin and Margaret are reconciled, and the centre's disaffected staff and clientele unite to put on a ceilidh, in reality, all is falling apart. This sense of disintegration is echoed in the structure of the book, where the only linear progression is that of the journey itself. The rest is an intricate rearrangement of past and present that is both powerful and intriguing. The first memory of Colin is of the moment he is about to disappear for the second time; the next is of how they met. The loss of Margaret's father is revealed through the anniversary of his death, preceding our knowledge that he has gone.
Kennedy's economical use of detail, her reduction of plot to brief exchanges and momentary acts, isolate and intensify these experiences. However, the lack of framework can be problematic, as obviously significant moments appear distractingly free of context. There are also one or two passages that are flat and out of place, as if parts of the story had been drawn from experience and it had been difficult to let go of the facts.
Kennedy has a gift for description, in particular for that which usually goes unseen. She takes situations and scenes so mundane they are rarely even remarked on, and startles the reader into seeing them afresh: the crowd at a station “standing like an operatic chorus awaiting revelations from above”; even the view from the train: “brick terraces spin away, bridges and motorways intersect or sway off behind more houses, tangled embankments, sleeper fences and settlements of corrugated workshops”.
A sense of helplessness invades every aspect of Margaret's life. She can do nothing, yet whatever happens appears to be her fault. The loneliness of a father who did not want her to grow up, the suffering of a lover who deserted her, the accidental death of the wife of her employer, all are somehow laid at her door. Impotence is also echoed in the wider context of social impoverishment: the drop-in centre is seen as community work at war with its constituency; loan sharks move in on those in need; and Colin, a graduate, is content to have a job selling television.
Following a sadistically violent act, everything falls into place, but Kennedy continues to resist making too many neat connections. The story is resolved but left at a point of several possible endings, a satisfying conclusion to an uncompromising and inventive work.
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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 scale and distinctively modern in emphasis, shrugging off the consolations of plot for an uncompromising focus on the messy lives most of us lead, lives that ‘leave absolutely nothing behind’. Her first novel, Looking for the Possible Dance, suggests she also has less faith than Torrington in Glasgow as a place ‘more into vaudeville than it was into violence’. When she looks beyond her characters she sees the grim side of the contemporary city—‘rotten ceilings, rotten windows, dog shite and needles all up your close. Rats.’
Kennedy's novel is told in the short paragraphs and the hauntingly odd manner familiar from her prize-winning short stories, as collected in Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains. The central character is the twenty-something Margaret, and the novel consists of her memories during a train journey from Glasgow to London. These scenes from a life are strikingly drawn, but follow one another out of sequence, so the narrative seems to have become peculiarly unmoored from conventional cause and effect—rather as in Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5, lovers fly apart only to meet for the first time. Margaret grows up as a single child in an intense, clinging relationship with her lonely father; at an unspecified English university, she becomes involved in an on-off relationship with fellow Glaswegian Colin; she returns to Glasgow and work at a community centre, where she is hassled by a manipulative manager and tries to help people improve their lot, even though she herself feels ‘prematurely finished’; and then Colin reappears. Before Margaret can decide whether or not to return to him, she must make sense of her experience of helplessness faced by this series of demanding men.
Margaret's dismally passive state mirrors her sense of the times, that ‘things were being destroyed, very openly destroyed.’ Kennedy has a convincingly sharp purchase on the haziness of a generation which feels there are no gestures left to make, and takes drugs not to tune in but simply to reach a kind of chemical peace. Margaret, knowing that life must hold out something more, looks ‘for the possible dance, the step, the move to beat them all’. She encourages plans for the Centre to hold a ceilidh, a half-ironic emblem of their ‘language-less, stateless, selfless nation’: ‘here we pretend we are Highland, pretend we have mysteries in our work, pretend we have work.’ But Margaret's relationship with Colin falls apart yet again, and the Centre will close, now that ‘communities are being phased out as barriers to enterprise and foreign travel.’
Looking for the Possible Dance may sound bleak, but while Kennedy's strength is not for humour, she carries the reader with her depiction of mood and her eye for the striking image. Commuters waiting the announcement of their train platforms stand ‘like an operatic chorus awaiting revelations from above … very much at peace, very focused, just a little unnerving’. That might serve as a description of Kennedy's style at its best. As in her short stories, she is superb at evoking states of emotional fatigue or feelings of abandonment, the way a couple can find themselves hurtling from nowhere down towards the ‘Relationship Event Horizon. Zero. Zero. Zero.’
Yet although Kennedy establishes her tangential narrative style with considerable deftness, at times it seems simply an attempt to disguise an inconsequential story: ‘Even now, it seems so unclear. Why she is leaving Glasgow and possibly staying away; there must be a reason for that.’ There are other moments of flatness, not helped by obtrusive hints throughout the novel of the dark fate awaiting Colin. When we finally reach this violent climax, it seems Kennedy has mistaken her genre. Colin, for having the temerity to publicly identify a loan shark, is ‘made an example of’ by being crucified on the floor of his apartment. The shock is deliberate, and its aftermath well described, but the scene itself seems merely melodramatic; the chief loan shark is an off-the-shelf psychopath with ‘an oddly bright smile’, who tortures Colin to the music of a Mozart clarinet concerto while lecturing him on the importance of living life to the full. It is as though, in reaching for a dramatic conclusion, Kennedy has forgotten her own sense of the need to attend to ‘the huge, invisible, silent roar of all the people who are too small to record’.
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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. Her characters (usually Scots, usually women) made sense of their lives through offbeat obsessions. There was the woman who saw her detested husband and sons as goblins; the researcher who tailed strangers and wrote their obituaries; the wronged wife fixated by the Garscadden trains.
Kennedy followed her success with a novel, Looking for the Possible Dance. It was ostensibly about a father-daughter alliance, a bond that powerfully outlasts the father's death. But far more memorable was the relationship between the woman and her lover. As few writers ever do, Kennedy caught the authentic idiom of intimacy: not coy but elliptical, two people dipping in and out of a dialogue.
Perhaps it was unfair to want another novel—and insulting to the short story. This new collection, Now That You're Back, confirms Kennedy's gift for the arresting first line and the inspired title (the best here is “Warming My Hands and Telling Lies”). The settings have become more diverse—London, Paris, Dublin; there are more male voices and more mind games. In “Christine”, the adult narrator meets a woman he once knew as an accident-prone schoolgirl, and discovers that the reason she fell over so often was her ability to hear everyone's thoughts (“very distracting”).
But, the assurance shown in stories like this drains away in two disastrous jeux d'esprit, including a pseudo-satirical disquisition on the virtues of the penguin. They suggest that while it is healthy for the writer to experiment, she shouldn't be doing so in public, and her publishers should be offering some friendly criticism.
For the rest, Kennedy's ordinary people seem to inhabit ever more extraordinary lives, like the American serial killer's wife babbling happily about her husband's habits. But there is a bleak emotional wind blowing through this collection, and it is hard not to miss the low-key tenderness of Kennedy's earlier stories, a quality that resurfaces poignantly in “Like a City in the Sea”, about a dying ballet dancer and her younger lover.
Critics who prowl the wastelands of the second-rate tend to pounce on talent like cats on a sparrow. When the talent is new, and fragile, there is always the danger they will squeeze it to death. Kennedy's voice is too rare and robust to be distorted or silenced. But she needs time to develop and space to breathe, without the burden of premature adulation.
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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 compulsion, variously embarked on convoluted quests for completeness and correspondence. As the drifter in “Failing to Fall” tells us: “I couldn't help looking for other taxis to see who was inside and if they were happy.” This search for connection and identity propels the stories and makes them compelling. Profound journeys develop out of nowhere as the characters wander through their ordinary, inconspicuous worlds, “looking for a way into life”.
There is something lost and somehow squashed about the people Kennedy depicts, compressed by their own inadequacies or by society, like the “generations of boys who grew up masturbating on their sides—little sons of Empire rounding their shoulders for life”. Such squashing or “spoiling” forces lurk throughout the book in comic as well as tragic guise, after their sinister introduction in the opening story, “A Perfect Possession”. Here, a strict and sanctimonious parent sucks the spirit out of its child, suffocating both him and the reader in a thick atmosphere of understated devastation. Like many of the collected pieces, the story is a dramatic monologue, highlighting Kennedy's skill at ventriloquism as the narrator destroys the child with the sheer force of its insidious voice.
The book echoes with voices: calling down telephones, trapped on tape-recorders, spewed over tannoys or floating unheard on the wind. Language takes on a life of its own and unleashes its power not only to shrink or stifle, but also to liberate lives as the narrators create themselves and picture their worlds through words. Kennedy's delight in language runs through the book, spicing the stories with idiosyncratic observations that are at once oblique yet obvious, and evolving crazy but irresistible logic out of rhetoric alone. In “On Having More Sense”, sophistry sounds like common sense when the Wise Old Man opens his mouth to eulogize the way of the penguin: “Point me out the mocker of elderly ladies, the jumper of queues, the giver of previously sucked boiled sweets to little children who ever was revealed to be a penguin. You cannot.” Audacious absurdities are flaunted as indisputable, even unremarkable, aspects of life, as in “Mixing with the Folks Back Home”, where the wife of a serial killer tolerates her husband's bloody “needs” as a messy, inconvenient hobby on a par with frog-catching. Laced through with black logic, the story is a wonderful feat of fabricated attitude and tone, with a play of perspective that teases “normal” distinctions between the perverse and the proper, pulling us into its own world of weird but watertight thinking.
Kennedy's flawless economy of words snaps whole scenes with photographic precision or brings them to life with a descriptive force that seems to revel in its own powers: “I won't describe every garden gate and every shadow as we passed them, the wonderful effect of the fish and chicken bar's illuminated sign as it fell and rolled on the slick of the paving.” Her language can turn a pigeon into “a little drunk man in a grey vest” or illuminate intimate, overlooked territories such as the groove of flesh between the nose and upper lip.
Despite these powers of animation, many of the stories have a strangely bodiless quality that mirrors the eerie facelessness of one speaker in “A Perfect Possession”. The voices often seem disembodied, lacking limbs and lives to go with the tastes, smells, fears and dreams of the speakers. In the earlier stories in particular, the characters are like walking ruminations, too slight for their insights. Where we ought to meet thinkers and feelers, we encounter thoughts and feelings, consciousness rather than character.
There is, however, nothing lifeless about Kennedy's writing, which remains undeniably and persuasively human. Rather than seeing her characters, complete with features and contexts, we see with them, discovering our own weaknesses and limitations and relishing our idiosyncrasies, compulsions and convictions through them. We meet lost, floating bits of ourselves and experience “a spasm of what you might call completeness”. Feeding our need “to be outside the average shape of the day”, Kennedy offers a unique and perverse escapism that plunges into mundane everyday life and luxuriates in the poetry and philosophy there. In “Warming My Hands and Telling Lies” the writer is reminded that “You could get inside people's heads, change them by showing them things they'd never thought of, make them happy.” A. L. Kennedy does just this, warming her hands and telling truths that celebrate quirky quotidian lives.
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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 clear: she has erased all traces of emotional spontaneity from her personality, and cultivated her sang-froid so well that she no longer believes herself capable of any genuine feeling. She pathologizes emotion to such an extent that she sees other people as buffeted by “whole hordes of feelings, all barrelling round inside them like tireless moles”, whereas she has always had “a certain moley something missing”. In keeping with this, she has built a career doing voice-overs for local radio; the best in her field, inexhaustibly flexible, she is required to empty words of their inflection in order to make them more palatable. And she has dispensed with her lover, whose complicity in a sado-masochistic relationship made her feel like “one half of a larger, insane thing that flails and twists and flops itself together in ways far too ridiculous for daylight”.
But when we meet Jennifer [in So I Am Glad], something has happened. She feels compelled to write down a story and to convince the reader of its honesty and authenticity. The narrative is littered with her appeals, now calm and insidious, now urgent and pleading, that this is the real her, that this really happened, that this is true. We sense—or, more accurately, she assures us of—her genuine intention to take responsibility for all that has happened.
For a while, at least for the opening section of the book, it is difficult to work out exactly what has happened. The opening scene sees Jennifer in her kitchen having an awkward conversation with a stranger. Most strikingly, he cannot remember his own name and he appears to be shining, actually glowing in the dark. Jennifer supposes him to be the new lodger, offers practical but detached support and plays down his outlandish appearance. But almost immediately, the stranger launches into a long rambling series of monologues, patchwork quilts of reminiscence, anecdote, exhortation and tears. His words are deliberately filled with meaning, loaded, expansive, the complete opposite of the verbal and mental economy with which Jennifer administers her life.
The novel consists of her attempts to solve the mystery, but the solution comes quite quickly when the stranger reveals himself to be none other than a reincarnation of Cyrano de Bergerac, brought back from the dead and dropped carelessly into late twentieth-century Scotland. This is an outrageously brash stroke by Kennedy, who never for a moment suggests that we should take it at anything less than face value. It is a mark of her talent that she pulls this conceit off: by creating a narrative framework so ludicrous, so obviously playful, she gives her characters the space in which to be wholly credible.
In fact, Cyrano de Bergerac fits surprisingly well into a novel about contemporary sexual and emotional mores. His predilection for violence and the power it confers both frightens and attracts Jennifer. In a pivotal episode in the middle of the book when she is temporarily abandoned by her historical interloper, she returns to her former lover and engages in a prolonged bout of sexual role-playing, during the course of which she loses control and whips him half to death. Kennedy controls the tension in this scene with precision, so that we are mesmerized by Jennifer's self-loathing and fear at the same time as we are fascinated and titillated by her actions. And the verbal duels in which Cyrano and Jennifer circle each other, thrusting and parrying in order to drive their points home, are a perfect metaphor for the labyrinths of romantic conversation.
Jennifer's confession naturally takes place in the absence of its object, and in a sense this is a novel about loss and how to find the words to describe it. With the loss of love, she finds the means to communicate for the first time in her life. The narrative voice is not without its problems. Kennedy clearly wishes to make a point by juxtaposing the brutal with the tender, the absurd with the tragic and the political with the personal. This occasionally makes for a rather forced rhythm; the joky banter and the polemic, in particular, do not really hit their mark. This is likely to expose Kennedy's weaknesses rather than Jennifer's. In terms of character, though, the shifts in tone and style work well; Jennifer's gawky self-revelation combines with her knowingness and wit to create a voice whose inelegance and uncertainty is at the very heart of its appeal.
Kennedy's impressive first novel Looking for the Possible Dance (1993) and her collection of short stories Now That You're Back (1994) were highly praised and led to her being promoted as one of the twenty Best of Young British Novelists in 1993. So I Am Glad, is a bizarre love-story which evades any meaningful generic description (its publishers describe it as an alchemical romance, a Swiftian satire, a spiritual journey and a plummet into insanity and perversion). It will certainly do much to consolidate her reputation as a writer of originality and wit.
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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 scenes from her private and professional life. This life is characterised, perhaps unconvincingly, as calm and without spontaneous emotion. It is broken up by “the sudden inconvenient tenderness” of romance. To complicate matters, her unintended beloved is Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, the 17th-century French satirist and playwright, popularised by Edmond Rostand for his proboscis and his poetry.
Kennedy writes with an extraordinary sense of confidence: like Jeanette Winterson and Angela Carter, she is firm in the belief that anything is possible within the confines of a story. Savinien is accommodated with pragmatism, and proves useful within the political perspective of the novel. We shudder when, after a fearsome explanation of his duelling past, Savinien sees a man with his throat cut in the street and realises he is as at home in Glasgow as at the siege of Arras. His baroque charm woos Jennifer and draws the reader into a heart-rending romance. Kennedy again takes a risk in creating their doomed love: theirs is not a happy ending, but it is a bravely moving one.
Jennifer's life as a “professional enunciator”—radio newsreader and “voice-over artiste”—provides Kennedy with an opportunity for more direct political attack. Scrolling bitterly through recent events, she catalogues the humiliating idiocies of the government, from charter-promising pamphlets to fines for the homeless. By summer 1994, her scripts resemble “a demonic Ealing comedy” and Jennifer has to fight to keep what her employers euphemistically describe as “a tone” from creeping into her voice.
Kennedy's approach to political comment is altogether exhilarating. While social horrors formed part of the texture of her first novel, her abhorrence of brutal Tory inadequacies rips through her second in Jennifer's grimly witty account. Savinien's delighted confusion forms a counterpoint and, in a set piece of comic brilliance, he discourses on “the men and women who are paid to improve your health by removing your physicians”. If there is anything to be inferred from Savinien's presence it is, perhaps, that a romance with a dead French hero is only as improbable as a government that has to warn asthmatics to stay indoors.
This is writing that answers back: sharp, satirical and eloquent in its anatomy of the disillusion of a generation. Kennedy's commonsense approach to language enables her to take metaphor to its limit with startling imagery—such as the rioting moles that stand as Jennifer's index to human emotions. It seems patronising to call work so fierce and funny bold but, within the context of the British novel, that is what it is.
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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 novel in the first place and has never, in the hard climate of Scotland, quite lost its original impetus:
Little comes more naturally to me and my kind than guilt. Devoid of feeling, yes. Devoid of guilt, never. I'm sure even Scottish sociopaths are soaked with remorse, it's in our air.
Confession time again, then. Here we go.
The severe outlines of Kennedy's writing, together with its relentless self-concern, hardly seem calculated to make an immediate appeal. She does not offer the pleasures or complexities of lyrical language, and her sharp, spare sentences can suggest an alienating aggression towards both characters and readers. What might be still more off-putting is the sense of righteousness that rarely deserts those who confess often. The open acknowledgment of guilt implies its opposite, in a paradox that is fully understood within the terms of Kennedy's fiction. Again and again, the crimes she most wants to expose (the injuries of poverty, the abuse of children, the contemporary mire of pollution and political chicanery) are not personal vices, but social injustices where inequity is a matter of common consent—no one would deny the damage they cause. Yet Kennedy is a larger and very much more winning writer than these fashionably bleak tactics would predict. She is formidably intelligent, and the flat surfaces of her prose conceal the flexibility of a quick literary imagination. In an age that still likes to see itself as neo-Romantic, she is a curiously Augustan figure. Her sense of moral certitude in an oppressive world, her interest in cruelty and the grotesque, her bitterly playful spirit of self-examination, often recall moments in Swift and Pope. Brooding intimacy and satirical fantasy are not separate writerly functions, and one of the developing strengths of A. L. Kennedy's work is to remind us of the connection.
Her writing persistently returns to themes of transgressive sexuality, violence, guilt and loss. It has the intensity of shameful memory, closed into an inner world answering only to secret imaginative rules. What this often recalls is the pained egotism of adolescence. It also brilliantly remembers the arrogance that underpins the anxiety of the young. Pushed to the margin, exploited or exploiting, inadequate and often uncharming, they nevertheless know themselves to be, unquestionably, among the elect. Their suffering identifies them, gives them expression and finally vindicates them. All Kennedy's sinners are justified.
The past 16 years of Conservative government have given Scots, particularly young Scots, many reasons to feel that they have been placed on the edge of a powerful institution that is being run elsewhere, in the interests of others. Public anger and private inwardness have proved a fertile mix for an aggrieved but assertive generation of Scottish writers. To be set aside gives a compelling incentive for fiction, a desire to find language for what might otherwise be silenced. In her first collection of short stories, Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains (1990), Kennedy explains: she is writing for the forgotten, small people with small lives. A pensioner, lonely and poor, talks about her passion for photography:
I have come to the conclusion that I deserve better things, that's all. I know I'll not get them, but that's fine. I would rather be content in hoping and making my position clear than settle for lies and nonsense and second best. I will take pictures of the things that are important so that I can keep them to look at again and, one day, I will maybe make a film.
Kennedy's preoccupation with lies, and the writer's duty to brush them aside, touches an old paradox. If she tells stories, she tells lies. It is a sore place that she touches again and again. ‘I can be honest with you. I can tell you that I do not tell the truth.’ Novelists have often speculated that fantasy might after all be the best way to tell us the truth, but this consoling notion doesn't quite do in Kennedy's austere and direct world. In Now That You're Back, her second collection of short stories, she broods uneasily on the narcissism of writing. ‘I don't know why these words occurred to me, only that they seemed entirely true. I sat and typed out fabrications, keeping my hands snug and supple on the little, black keys. That was all it came to, nothing more. Just warming my hands and telling lies.’
Kennedy's new novel, So I Am Glad, is an inventive confrontation with issues that she has pondered before. Youth will not endure (she is 30 this year), and the repeating designs that have ordered her work might have begun to constrain it. Her first novel, Looking for the Possible Dance, considered the lover who disappears, and then liberates frozen potential with an unlooked-for return. This pattern recurs, with a difference, in So I Am Glad. The inner voice, guilt and fantasy, violence and victimhood—these remain the central themes. But now Glasgow's brisk streets have become, unexpectedly, the home of a transforming enchantment. Mercy Jennifer Wilson, the voice of the novel, works as a ‘professional enunciator’ for a local radio station. ‘Someone has to do it. Radio prayers and poems, British voices for American faces, neutral voices for criminal faces—terroristically digitised—jolly encouragements to purchase who cares what and, of course, calm accounts of current chaos, who cares where.’ Making a living out of her displaced voice, Jennifer has withdrawn from the human world. She is (like many of Kennedy's voices) a victim of sexual abuse in childhood. The resulting emotional dislocation has made her ruthless. Mercy, her own first name, simply baffles her, and she has long since dropped it. Defensively, she has turned herself into someone who can connect with feeling, her own or that of others, only in inflicting pain. Her vigorous sadism (graphically described—Kennedy is a writer who, like Jennifer, has a relish for distress) distorts her sexuality, and moves her still further from the hazardous exposure of shared sympathy. These are thoroughly modern ills, and the wrongs that depress her—the failure of the family, a soiled environment, unemployment at home, hopelessness in the Third World, corrupt politicians everywhere—read very much like a conscientious list of the woes of the Nineties. But Kennedy's satirical edge is whetted by her allusive and widely-read scholarship, and her fiction locates itself in a literary past. Brutal and preternaturally sensitive, a withered refugee from her own kind, Jennifer is a female Gulliver who has never had the chance to travel.
Into this dour and impoverished life erupts, literally, a stranger returning from a half-forgotten world of old stories. Materialising unannounced in the spare room of Jennifer's rented house, his foreignness is more than natural—for one thing, he glows in the dark. His language is odd, his ideas are odder. Piece by piece, Jennifer learns the bizarre story she takes it upon herself to tell us. Her visitor is, or so it appears, Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, 17th-century writer, soldier, lover, duellist and notorious liar. De Bergerac is a man who became a fiction, a fantasy transformed into literature. ‘I am neither mad nor mistaken, I am only impossible,’ he announces to his bewildered new friend. He is also, it seems, just what Jennifer needed. She is forced into an engagement with the past—her own damaged past, and that of her culture. Learning its lessons, she discovers what it is like to feel, even to love.
For a writer who has made a reputation out of granite realism, this venture into magic is a substantial risk. The story could readily have become either fey or sentimental, but is finally neither. What saves it is a tough and wide-ranging concern with literary and historical selfhood. Who is this shimmering revenant? A real man, with robust appetites—he is neither angel nor ghost. But he is also representative of the origin of Jennifer's modern maladies. His life was as barbarous as hers has been, and his death, in disputed circumstances, seems to have been a violent one. Like Jennifer, he is at odds with the urban life that has produced him. ‘I have always found it hard to believe in most things.’ He is contaminated by the traumas of others, crowded into a dirty city, deformed and energised by the ‘continual stare of its streets’. Kennedy makes de Bergerac's mythologised long nose an image of what has set him apart from humankind: ‘I inhaled so much blasphemy and heresy and original thought that naturally their atoms and mine became combined, as is wood with fire. I was alchemised.’ This impossible de Bergerac and Jennifer have both grown away from the proper shape of their lives. Having written about space travel (surely one of the first to do so), de Bergerac after death is propelled into a numbly extraterrestrial afterlife, floating in space. Kennedy imagines him trapped in another world, that of his own writing. As a result, his marvellous return has the power to set new light to what Jennifer is also by slow alchemy becoming—not only drifting fantasist, but writer.
De Bergerac's most fantastic text, L'Autre Monde, is the fictional shadow moving before Kennedy's novel. Satirical, irreverent and innovative, L'Autre Monde, ou les états et empires de la lune is the story of a world in which both alchemical magic and new science (Copernican and Galilean) can be exuberantly considered and acknowledged. It was posthumously published, at first in an expurgated form in 1657, two years after his death. The complete text did not appear until 1921. This was a fantasy too daring, and perhaps dangerous, to achieve its right form in its own time. Gleeful rejections of orthodoxy had laid de Bergerac open to the scandalous charge of atheism. Kennedy's resurrected Savinien makes his faith, or scepticism, a matter of doubt. Hundreds of years spent spinning in space, uncommitted to humanity or divinity, suggest a purgatorial punishment leading to the prospect of another chance:
There was a darkness cold and patient as the moon, without sound and without meaning and nothing more but my tiny thought of myself adrift along eternity. I was the black of an eye, a cold dry look pressed in against night, and I saw only the absence of God—a faraway disinterested ache, a faint taste of intellect on the edge of time.
To speak of absence suggests the possibility of presence. This is not the first time that Kennedy has wondered about the operations of suffering and redemption. The hero of Looking for the Possible Dance was an entirely secular figure, placed in her characteristically disaffected and urban frame. But he too returns, and reclaims the heroine, who is an earlier expression of Jennifer's spiritual alienation, with a horribly literal crucifixion. De Bergerac comes back from another kind of world, and his martyrdom, if that is what it should be called, is a more distant one. Again, it is imagined as a physical process. De Bergerac was a soldier as a young man, and it was receiving a wound that led to his becoming a writer. Kennedy dwells on his scars, as worldly stigmata. ‘I can't think of anything that would make a mark like that.’ His saving passion is a matter of the body and its restorative capacity to endure, to gesture towards significance that might survive its own death.
The 17th-century world that de Bergerac has left behind was in many ways still more tainted than the 20th-century world he has re-entered. Life was dirtier, narrower, its forms of cruelty more casual and often more destructive. The grotesque nose that made de Bergerac separate also made him dangerous, and the book dwells on his reputation as a murderous duellist. ‘I made a whole city careful how it looked in my face.’ But modern city life, as he perceives it, perpetuates old violence in masked disguises. Cars can be more menacing as duelling weapons than swords: ‘They move people but they do so much more, they make such fear. At one point I was in amongst them and I could see one driver's face, boxed up there with his wheel in darkness, he was not making a journey, he was setting out to kill.’ Drugs, too, are more potent than wine ever was, and the novel gives unflinching attention to their false promises of another world. The notion of de Bergerac as Glaswegian drug addict is of course absurd. Kennedy knows this, and here as elsewhere she plays with the absurdity. Yet once the notion is admitted it makes a kind of sense, and his fragile rehabilitation is one of the most engaged sections of the narrative. It is described with the same grim precision with which Kennedy displays the processes and consequences of Jennifer's sadism. This is a novel that insists on the primacy of the body, and on our need to acknowledge and respect what the body has to teach; but it is never in the least inclined to romanticise its sticky and unsafe activities.
Love story, allegory, fantasy and satire, So I Am Glad is held together with a sense of strain that makes it a vertiginous experience. Many of Kennedy's concerns and strategies are those of literary fashion, of which she is an exceptionally shrewd judge, and her new book is uncompromising in its claim to be a novel of the moment. She has no wish to beat an eccentric and lonely path into a critical wilderness. But the unlikely forms of the novel's spirituality and its defiant optimism—‘I will be glad’—make this a more densely suggestive and peculiarly comforting story than anything she has yet produced. De Bergerac inevitably turns back to his other world, waning with the moon. Made out of literature, he was a book passing into a body, with a reflected power to save. He taught the folly of despair, the need to love. Having told us that she was less than human, Jennifer confesses that she was not telling the truth. ‘Sometimes the best beginning is a lie. But I hope you'll accept my apology for it now.’ It is a resonant and hopeful moment, for Kennedy and for her readers.
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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 hide behind it is to render us something less than human.
Jeanette Winterson and A L Kennedy are two of the leading writers of the new generation. Both are female and have won many prizes. One has gone from wild popularity as an outspoken lesbian to a chorus of (largely male) disapprobation; the other received the accolade of being a 1996 Booker judge, and benefits from the current exaltation of Scottish writing. A L Kennedy has been compared to Winterson, and both, as it happens, have written about passion and physics in their present books. …
A L Kennedy advertises her sexlessness by her initials, but conforms to the female canon in writing exclusively about love and sex. Not all of her stories succeed, (a couple, such as “A Short Conversation” have only their shortness to commend them) but those that do make Original Bliss a delight.
The sensation of being charmed is slow but irresistible. Kennedy is no show-off or pyrotechnician. She has little dabs of wit (“Some Americans simply had too many teeth … seemed almost dangerously well-prepared for feeding”) and wicked jokes (a “Cupid Stunt” who turns out to be far from stupid) but what they're set in seems so unremarkable that it's rather like suddenly noticing how many bright and beautiful colours are woven into an apparently drab tweed. Subtle, erotic and never silly, Kennedy's physicists convince as Winterson's do not—even when jerking off in space.
The title story is the most ambitious and accomplished. It concerns a love affair between a victimised wife and a lonely genius. Helen is consumed by her loss of faith, Edward by his addiction to pornography. Their painful intimacy and ultimate escape into happiness are almost worthy of Jane Gardam or Francis King.
It is regrettable that Kennedy will probably be read solely by women, and that Winterson will have to endure yet another critical drubbing by men. The one deserves more, the other less. But that, alas, is the trouble with separate canons.
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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 themselves, slightly drawn as they are, and with no indication of where they come from and little of what shaped them. They appear at times to be floating in space, somewhere just out of our reach. Yet that is perhaps exactly as we should perceive others, rather than having the temerity to suppose that we can define them precisely.
The same kind of haunting, tantalising strangeness is evoked in almost all the stories which are generally concerned with love, sex, desire, attaining and not attaining. Sometimes they are poignant with unspoken desire as in “Animal” or touching as in “Groucho Moustache” where the first-person-singular heroine, ‘powerless in the grip of her own nature’, and endlessly gullible, is looking for an honest relationship—one in which she can believe and believe what she is told. Then there is the frankly unpleasing “Made Over, Made Out”, in which one feels like telling the character, Kovacks, just to shut up and get on with it. But it must be said that this story is set literally floating in space, taking the form of a conversation between two astronauts. One marvels at Kennedy's ability to convey what one can only presume is the atmosphere of a spaceship. Has she been in one, I wonder?
But enough of all that, because there is one story in this collection—the long title story or novella, “Original Bliss”—which is so outstanding and so extraordinary that it deserves our undivided attention. It seems unlikely that anyone having read it would ever be able to forget it.
Kennedy belongs to that modern breed of person who believes in pushing back the frontiers, crossing what might generally be regarded as the boundaries of decency, daring violence and questioning pornography. In “Original Bliss” she does all these things and at times makes you feel sick, which is probably exactly how she wants you to feel. Where traditional rules of decency are flouted, it has to be for dramatic or poetic effect, or in the interests of truth. Here it is certainly highly unlikely that more tentative or mealy-mouthed writing could have begun to capture the essence of what “Original Bliss” is about with a fraction of its present triumphant success.
It is violent, disgusting, perverted, creepy, frightening, funny, extraordinarily romantic and touchingly optimistic. Having made you feel sick, it can also enrage you and move you to tears. Where there is cruelty in the writing, there is also tenderness, boldness and bravery. The story concerns the search for something—which turns out to be love—by two lonely people. Mrs Brindle, a Scottish woman with a violent husband, has lost God who was her solace in an otherwise bleak existence and without Him she is alone. The barrenness of her situation is admirably conveyed from the very start, where we find her lying uncomfortably on the livingroom floor at night, listening to a professor of the Open University discussing the etiquette of masturbation.
So it is that through the media Mrs Brindle becomes aware of Edward E. Gluck whose new book The New Cybernetics promises some kind of answer for her in her dilemma, and thus she arranges a trip to Stuttgart, there to hear the professor speak. And there they meet … But the professor has a dark secret. He too is cocooned in his own grisly isolation.
To say more would be to ruin the effect of this small masterpiece, which should be read not only for the skill with which it is told but for the strange truths it contains.
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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 previously, neither of whom he has seen or heard from since. He lives alone, but shares the island with five other writers, among them a performance poet with a shark fixation; a depressed crime novelist with a deformed arm; and Lynda, the crime writer's wife, a “splendidly sluttish, mediocre women's-novel novelist”. Her pierced labia majora have become septic and she likes, the novel hints, to be penetrated by her partner's withered limb. Into this band of depressives, suicidals and nymphomaniacs comes 19-year-old Mary Lamb, an aspirant writer. Brought up by her gay uncles in small-town South Wales, she is the recipient of Foal Island's first writer's fellowship. Nathan Staples is to be her mentor. He is also, unbeknown to Mary, her father.
The novel [Everything You Need] is excellent on life's brute physicality. Its strains and pains are depicted in elemental terms, reflected in vivid phrases: “a raw gale was dumping rain in gravelly armfuls against his western window”. Kennedy is attentive to the general “smeariness” of existence (“smear” is a favourite word of hers), its mess and uncertainty. More often than not, she leaves questions of motive open: thoughts and actions slip and slide into each other, while characters fumble and flap at crucial moments. Nathan, the central figure, is reduced regularly to stammering incoherence, his words disintegrating when he needs them most. Kennedy is terrifyingly alive to the human need to make sense of the recalcitrant world, and to the fallacies, sops and delusions that fleetingly transform chaos into order. Yet for the most part, Foal Island is a place whose inhabitants have stepped out of the pages of T S Eliot's The Waste Land: “On Margate Sands / I can connect / Nothing with nothing.”
The first hundred or so pages of Everything You Need are vital, the prose pungent. There is no doubt that Kennedy is a prodigiously talented stylist. She is certainly in the premier league when it comes to profanity; she swears more profusely and creatively than almost anyone I have ever read. In a powerful sense, it was the harsh eloquence that carried me through this bloated conceit of a novel. Nearly every paragraph sparkles with some jagged diamond of a phrase; in one of the book's rare comic moments, Mary wakes from a blissful post-coital slumber to discover her uncles smiling benignly at the end of her bed: delightfully, “they had padded into her unbuttoned room”. On another occasion, we encounter a man whose snorting laugh made him seem “as if he were eating his own amusement”.
The novel offers up minute and pitiless attention to our deepest needs and fears. Kennedy's characters grapple with metaphysical complexities that most other British novelists would struggle to look square in the eye, let alone attempt to animate.
But it is overkill that ultimately defeats: the unremitting scatology, the obsessions with pain, desperate sex, wounds and death bludgeon us, and become dull and dulling. What Kennedy seems to have forgotten is that if angst is everywhere, then it becomes stripped of its meaning. There is something indulgent, even puerile, about compiling such an arduous catalogue of suffering and degradation. Nathan could be speaking about the entire book when describing his own work thus: “I suppose the material is, quite fundamentally, unfunny. Suicidal impulses and wholesale death—with me they'd always raise a laugh—but not with everyone, I know.”
There are problems, too, with the characterisation. If Nathan Staples sometimes seems a near-impossible confusion of poetry and inarticulacy, stridency and insecurity, blunt anger and eggshell fragility, then Mary Lamb is even more improbable. The novel requires us to believe that this perfectly likeable, vivacious teenager is a great writer in the making, although she never says, does, reads or writes anything remotely arresting, nor does she have any discernible interests. Despite her cheery good sense, she apparently has no objection to spending five years surrounded by this collection of hollow men and women. Her career as a writer blossoms as the novel progresses, though we have no sense of her honing her craft.
Kennedy's touch is equally unsure when she describes Nathan's relationship with his deranged and sybaritic publisher, J D. Towards the end of the novel, J D's dipsomania drives him to procure alcohol enemas from a friendly male S&M prostitute. Rather than accepting money for services rendered, the prostitute prefers as his fee to extract one of J D's teeth while the publisher is pole-axed by the rush of booze. J D's conversations with Nathan are full of empty repartee, as if Kennedy is not quite sure what a book editor does—perhaps the case, given the wearisome length of the narrative—and, more importantly, how men of this age and in this kind of relationship might actually speak to each other.
As the horrors of the book become familiar, we do not, at least, come to view them as comic: Kennedy's vision is far too bleak for that. But Everything You Need lacks any sense of wider society. The characters are thoroughly de-socialised and seldom interact in groups. When they do congregate, red mist begins to rise from the pages, as Kennedy's prose finds new levels of furious violence. In this sense, the comparison with other writers is instructive. Critics have suggested that Salman Rushdie is unable to keep his novels on a human scale. Kennedy does not share that problem: she has a vision of all-too-human proportions, but struggles to calibrate accurately events in the social sphere.
In a novel as long and static as this, Nathan Staples' agony begins eventually to seem singular and irreducible. After almost 600 pages, we can recognise his desire to feel whole and empathise with his bitter loneliness but nevertheless struggle to offer an account of him as a man. Instead we are left simply to watch him writhe.
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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 warped mind of A. L. Kennedy's hero, Nathan Staples, a novelist who writes about physical torture, deviancy and murder in order to assuage his anguish at losing the love of his wife and the giving away to a pair of Welsh homosexuals of his beloved daughter. The novel [Everything You Need] is about his redemption through rediscovering ‘the ability to give and receive love’ as the blurb gushingly puts it. The blurb, however, does not tell you that you must follow Nathan's tortured path through scenes of graphic sex of every possible sort, which although sometimes funny, could not be described, by any stretch of the imagination, as subtle. Be prepared for pierced labias gone septic, ‘enemas’ in return for tooth extraction, orgasms from sharks and sexual arousal through disability.
The narrative has a narrative within it. As Kennedy tells of Nathan's solitary and miserable quest for salvation, Nathan writes his autobiography to use as a vehicle finally to announce his true identity to his daughter. All the right tensions are there and pain oozes from every page—Nathan has cancer, his only friend drinks himself to death, his daughter, Oedipus-like, falls in love with him and at the climax of the book Nathan, in a bid to kill himself, nearly kills his dog instead. But the full impact is lost because of Kennedy's inability to decide what sort of a book she is writing. Is it satire or tragedy? Our hopes are raised for a murder mystery by the death of a child, and for an exposé of the world of literary parasites through Nathan's dissolute and disintegrating literary editor, Jack Dowd Grace. But although all these themes are touched on, none is brought to completion.
Kennedy sets her novel on a Welsh island, but in fact the motley selection of literary losers who inhabit it are pure Islington. ‘In writing, as in love, we die to ourselves yet still live. We become immortality and less than nothingness. We make ourselves fit to hear truths. We make ourselves fit to tell them. Our hearts speak,’ intones the leader of their little fellowship, who might himself, like Kennedy, have won the Social Work Today award. This pretentious hot air is presumably supposed to be funny, but in our world of Blairspeak it is difficult to tell.
What is not difficult to tell, however, is that Kennedy has decided to give fellow Scots authors James Kelman and Irvine Welsh a run for their fucking statistics—Kelman is notoriously said to have included the f-word 3,000 times in one short story. Yet whilst Welsh carries obscenities off because his books are unashamedly repulsive and Kelman succeeds through the clarity and sparseness of his prose, the endless repetition of ‘f—’ and ‘c—’ jar in Kennedy's more expansive style. There are already too many words in this novel. Some of the four-letter ones might have been abandoned. It remains a mystery why many modern Scottish authors seem to think their work will be reckoned stuffy, or even English, if they do not litter it with obscenities. Perhaps our new parliament will give them the confidence to abandon this distraction and to realise that the transition from Walter Scott to Irvine Welsh in 200 years is seen by many as a decline rather than an advance for Scottish literature.
This should be a powerful book, as it certainly touches on powerful themes. Moreover, Kennedy, to her great credit, is not frightened of taking some good digs at contemporary neuroses. But for all the strength of its message, that there is hope even for people utterly hopeless, my more pressing concern having finished it was that the description of a woman who masturbates with vegetables before putting them in the soup was not based on anybody who is likely to ask me to dinner.
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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 Edward Gluck, a pop psychologist, on the Open University. She writes to him and they arrange a meeting at a conference. Gluck, addicted to hardcore pornography, is equally crippled emotionally. However, the relationship they begin moves forward, tentatively at first, and allows both of them to conquer together their parallel dysfunctions. In the end, this is a novel which becomes, surprisingly, a compelling and convincing love story.
Kennedy has written a richly understated and beautifully plotted novel which examines not only the surfaces of addiction—to violence, denial, and pornography—but also the mangled roots which allow these to grow. On one level, Kennedy explores a small world which will be familiar to the readers of Barbara Pym while, on another, her treatment of spousal abuse is reminiscent of what Roddy Doyle achieved in The Woman Who Walked into Doors. But she delves deeper than those two writers by locating the areas in the physical and psychological worlds from which these terrors emerge. In the end we are left with a finely rounded portrait of both the abusers and the abused with light cast on the forces that drive and manipulate human beings. Original Bliss is slow-moving, painful, and disturbing. It is also full of truth and executed with great verve.
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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 Rodriguez and wounds him, she writes: “I watch through the telephoto lens of my camera and I take photographs and keep taking photographs until my film runs out.” Yet there are no photographs in the book. The author relies on words, even while lamenting at the beginning and end of the work that a crisis in her life as a writer left her unsure “if I was still capable of writing anything at all”!
What words are appropriate when writing about a public spectacle in which animals—specially bred for the purpose—are painfully killed for the entertainment of a paying crowd? On Bullfighting is about killing bulls, but it is also about writing, vocation and confronting death. A specialist vocabulary, with all its precision and nuance, is carefully deployed to describe the dress of the bullfighters, the weapons used in the ring, the preparation of the bulls, horses and human beings, the traditional order of events, and the exact movements and strategies of the toreros. Arcane language gives to both writing and killing the appearance of science. Kennedy has done her research thoroughly, and one could use this book as a detailed guide to the correct terms for every grade of participant, and every particular cape and sword and their approved usages. There is even a twelve-page glossary to aid the inexpert. But when she moves from theory to practice, her painstaking account of several corridas makes excruciating reading. Healthy bulls are systematically tortured and weakened, then provoked into a dance of death with the matador, in which the bull's death is certain, the matador's unlikely but always possible. Words can distance the reader, placing him or her at the other side of a safety barrier of expert knowledge, much as the toreros may shelter in the ring behind the burladeros. But words also immerse the reader in the immediacy of animal suffering, blood and fear. There is no avoiding the ugliness and cruelty that coexist with pageantry and ritual.
Like every researcher into Spanish bullfighting, Kennedy asks what it means. She describes it as “part entertainment, part outrage, part sacrament”. Rejecting sport and even theatre as inadequate categories in which to locate it, she chooses instead religion. It is the testing of mortality that fascinates her. She is therefore less interested than many commentators have been in what bullfighting might say about Spain and its Spanish aficionados, concentrating instead on what it might say about an individual, exposed, human being who risks danger and death in front of the crowd.
Kennedy writes with enormous power and empathy about particular bullfighters, analysing their personal style, artistry and courage in their public confrontation with mortality. She writes about past masters whose work she has seen on film, like Domingo Ortega, “the first matador whose work I found beautiful”, about the young star, El Juli, and the rising hopefuls, always careful to distinguish between the professional name in the ring and the individual's own personal name, Domingo López Ortega, Julián López López. Because she recognizes a kind of vocation, a testing of self to the limits of endurance and skill in circumstances where the self might be blotted out entirely, she respects the bullfighter. Perhaps even more, she is empowered by watching them work out their vocation, magnified in her camera or binocular lens, to regain for a while at least her own, and to write this complex, disturbing book.
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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 bullfight. My excuse—which, I should say, has never convinced anyone—is that of all our dealings with animals, bullfighting at its best seems the most dignified. I was nine when I read the memoirs of the great Peruvian fighter Conchita Cintrón. Fascinated by falconry, and pretty pompous about training the family dog, I was very taken with the technicality of bullfighting—and by Cintrón's ability to recall vividly, almost lovingly, the details of each creature's character. Hers was not an adversarial approach, which meant that I was spared the machismo. At my first bullfight years later in Arles, I lapped it up in horror and rapture.
The need to be present throughout the process and to watch it from a single point of view, with everyone else around in a great, single-minded circle, must be one reason it is intolerable on TV. As a mediated spectacle, it's sanguinary camp. Yet in the mind bullfighting is a powerful metaphor for any number of social and sentimental relations. Death and Money in the Afternoon, however, is impatient about the meanings with which Spaniards and foreigners have mystified the corrida, obscuring the fact that it's manmade—i.e. has a history. Adrian Shubert's most bracing contention is that, far from epitomising the anti-modernity periodically mourned by Spanish intellectuals, bullfighting was from the start a sign of advanced capitalism. Rather than confirming Spain as the savage of Europe (Ortega y Gasset identified it as the great symptom of a national pathology he called ‘Tibetanisation’), the corrida represented a mass-marketing of leisure well before baseball or boxing, and its economic logic quite properly defeated every attempt to suppress it.
Bullfighting in its recognisably modern form dates from the Bourbon accession in 1701. The new dynasty was bored by bulls, so the nobles lost interest as well, hung up their lances and abandoned the sport (in the old sense of ‘fun’) to the plebeians, who had always milled about in the background. With the social shift from lancing on horseback to caping on foot, the sport's centre of gravity moved south. Tastes were turning away from the anarchic, communal buffoonery traditional to the North (and still indulged there, most famously at Pamplona) towards Andalusian aesthetics and drama. The corrida no longer consisted of directionless bull-baiting: it was a three-act progression with a ceremonial climax in death. The writings of the Seville-born matador, José Delgado, alias ‘Pepe Illo’ (1754-1801), were an attempt to regulate and legitimate these changes in the language of the Enlightenment. Anxious to rebuff charges of irrationality and barbarity (barbarity towards humans, that is; as Delgado said, more people die swimming, yet no one talks of banning that), he devised a classification for the manoeuvres of the bull and corresponding cape techniques. The terminologies were those of Nature, Experience and Art. Disdaining his own ‘infallible’ prescriptions, Delgado himself performed with intuitive flamboyance and died in the ring: a contradiction overlooked by Shubert, who documents every other paradox from the 18th century to the early 20th in an engrossing book replete with quotations and anecdotes. But Death and Money in the Afternoon is so loosely structured that the same points are repeated in every chapter, partly because what crude evidence there was about bullfighting in its early years could be interpreted in diametrically opposite ways and used to condemn or to exalt, depending on whether you were a conservative moralist or a liberal (often foreign) progressive. Stuck in the middle were the educated Spanish breast-beaters who didn't realise they had the most progressive thing going in Europe.
Raising bulls was excellent for agriculture, some said; it ruined it, others retorted. It was good for working-class morals because the lower orders saved up responsibly to attend a virile, patriotic spectacle, while class-mixing in the stands made Spanish society ‘the most democratic in the world’ and compensated for the deferential drudgery of the working week; alternatively, it encouraged the squandering of hard-earned wages on a vulgar carnage that was also an apprenticeship of disrespect, threatening the principle of authority—a matter of special concern to 19th-century élites. For when the bulls behaved like lambs, or an expensive matador let his subordinates do all the work, or the president, usually some ignorant civil notable, made an unpopular decision, then the public vented its rage with impunity, yelling abuse and lobbing oranges, bottles, fire-darts, benches, even dogs and cats into the ring. A ringside riot could turn into a political one. In 1835, during the Carlist wars, the mob stormed out of the arena and began torching churches. Shubert makes a neat sideways link here with the democratic urban experience of the ‘crowd’ as a new phenomenon, part threat, part thrill, that became familiar in the rest of Europe and America rather later. ‘Week after week, or even day after day, thousands of people headed to a single place with a single purpose; to see the bullfight. An unexceptional fact, but not in the 18th century … Going to a bullfight was an eminently modern experience.’
Even though the matadors were always struggling for the upper hand against the other two forces in the industry—ranchers and promoters—they were the world's first overpaid popular stars. It is true that they had to support a cuadrilla (the team of banderilleros and picadors who were originally juniors, on the artisan model), but by the late 19th century top names like Lagartijo could command shocking sums. In 1882 he earned 600,000 reals, five times more than the president of the Supreme Court. In England, the annual salary of a professional cricketer was £275—roughly equal to Lagartijo's fee for a single fight. A bit of danger, then, was hardly likely to deter the young dreamers from the urban fringes who made up most of the aspirants. And there was the guarantee of sex and glamour. Angel ‘Camisero’ Carmona, who worked in a shirt shop as a child, saw so many toreros swan in ‘with their tight-fitting trousers showing everything God gave them … and their necklaces hung with monumental lockets covered in innumerable and luminous gems, so very stylish and bullfighterish’, that he decided to become one himself.
Until the 1840s or thereabouts, the tight pants went with a flash, disreputable lifestyle which the more priggish commentators blamed on the class origin of the fighters. The first matador to gain respectability, and even a royal audience with Isabella II, was Francisco Montes. After that, bullfighters started dressing like everybody else and ‘favouring cocktails’ as opposed to gallons of wine. A nostalgic journalist complained that they had become ‘as knowledgeable as anyone about the state of government bonds’. Most toreros seemed proud to be posh. The banderilleros' union proclaimed: ‘No more carousing! We have abandoned the tavern, and we read books.’
The main reason the corrida survived so much disapproval (with animal protection societies contributing to the row only from around 1870) was that it produced unrenounceable wealth. During the 18th century, the Maestranzas Reales—aristocratic clubs devoted to horsemanship—hospital commissions, public welfare bodies and even churches had permission from the Crown to hold regular fights or occasional benefits, and had then become dependent on the proceeds. ‘Much like government lotteries today’, Shubert tells us, bullfights were ‘a comfortable alternative to taxation that usually trumped any qualms officials had about their non-monetary value’. As for the fans, they just kept on paying. They ignored calls for consumer strikes against the many forms of corruption in the game, as well as bans mooted by high-minded governments in 1768, 1786 and 1805. Early prohibitions were based on a paternalistic view of the fans' welfare that was economic as well as moral. But by the 19th century, laissez-faire and mass entertainment were recasting attitudes throughout society. The latter part of the century saw an explosive growth in the bullfighting business, vindicating a prophecy made in 1865: ‘The curses of the humanitarians will be silenced by the proofs of the economists.’
It's harder, in the light of all this, to view the corrida as a timeless expression of the Spanish soul, whether for good or ill; and yet there are plenty of other souls from which it could scarcely be more remote. No North American spectacle could be built round such a tragic, feel-bad teleology, or accord such prominence to genealogy. Today even the toreros, once paragons of self-made Spanish manhood, mostly issue from a privileged handful of matador or rancher lineages. (Dynastic dementia: until recently, when a bull was smart enough to kill a man, the dam was slaughtered in an act of genetic misogyny.) But perhaps it's because death is not a hazard so much as the whole point of the thing, for all contenders in their different ways, that when the brass squeals out and the costumed men and horses pace solemnly into the arena, something catches at your throat in the certainty that an extraordinary emotional rite is about to take place.
This expectation is usually disappointed. A. L. Kennedy's first bullfight inspires a terrific account of your average corrida, which is a blundering, casually brutal affair that drags on and on, while today's well-heeled audience boos or cheers half-heartedly between sips of gin and tonic. Kennedy hadn't had many thoughts about bullfighting before she was commissioned to write the book [On Bullfighting]. It had been a nasty show of ‘boys in spangled satin and slippers stiff-legging it through their required paces’—the classic dismissal with sexist and Northern undertones. But a failed suicide attempt, relived in Chapter One, and the persistence of writer's block, persuaded her that the project could become an interesting investigation into the nature of risk, chance, and living with death postponed.
Her long essay is satisfyingly truffled with considerations on ethics, religion, culture and psychology. She takes pains to clarify for sensitive readers that bullfighters are not psychopaths pulling the wings off very large flies: the proceedings in the plaza ‘have a great deal to do with both a personal and a wider kind of faith, an intermingling of fear, superstition, Catholic iconography and both Christian and pre-Christian urges to understand the termination of life and to celebrate survival’. There are absorbing accounts of the revolution in technique and feeling pioneered by the great bullfighter Juan Belmonte in the 1920s and 1930s, of dressing-room rituals and the peculiarities of bovine eyesight: it seems that having eyes at the side of the head gives bulls ‘a large blind area … directly to the front’. She gets queasily close to the point when she compares the intuitive work of Monty Roberts, the New Age American horse-breaker, with what a very few men and women have done with a very few bulls: ‘the crossing of the species barrier’. ‘But Roberts doesn't end his interaction with the horse by, for example, shooting it’—though he does prepare it for a life of servitude. Is the bullfight redeemed or betrayed by the kill? ‘Is the art of the corrida in the close physical relation of two moving forms, or in the threat of death, or can't the two be separated?’ I think they can't. Imagine the same degree of teasing, wounding and thwarting without the unshaven horns threatening retribution or the tragic climax—corrida Portuguese style. It can only be a spectacle of callous frivolity. And the bull is coshed just the same as soon as it staggers out of sight: it would be very expensive to maintain in the meadow.
But Kennedy's objectivity is intermittent as she strains, sometimes preposterously, to compete with the theme. ‘In attempting to control death, the toreros and I may have a little in common. We have attempted the impossible, something which stands in the face of nature.’ In Lorca's mummified Granada home, she touches the light-switch he may have touched on the way to his death, and weeps for daring to call herself a writer. She also identifies with the bull, in a passive, physical way, being tortured throughout her trip by acute pain between the shoulder-blades. In general, she tells us too many things she should not, or not here. The confessional passages, rather than deepening the scope, detract from the writerly accomplishment, on which the writer's doubts are liberally scattered. The only problem, we silently scream, is that self-laceration—a form of self-aggrandisement, however unintended—intrudes every time we start to get immersed in what she tells so well. Of her pain there is no question: it is bad enough to blind her to the worst effects of self-consciousness. What are we to make of remarks like this, about her bull dreams? ‘They make a good obsession, something solid to drive out less pleasant images. Too many empty hotel rooms can cause depression—if you still count a room as empty with me inside it, which, of course, I do.’ By insisting that the project is desultory, an experiment to find out if she can still hold a pen, she makes us feel we're being taken for a ride. ‘This is a bullfighting book, there has to be at least one bar.’ The nuts-and-bolts passages (Mithraism, the Minoans) bring twitches of impatience (‘And now I suppose I'd better tell you about …’), while people and places in the present are distorted in her bubble of misery. The search for faith being a failure, the last sentence in the book is a sad: ‘I don't know what to do.’
Perhaps people who struggle with bullfighting—with whatever it is that seems so enticing beneath the guise of a supreme, condensed reality—are taking it all too seriously. We're unable to face the absolute mundanity of it. We palpitate at what is not really there, at a parade of symbols and a performance of emotion that are fundamentally hollow. The bulls are always slipping over, the matadors display little creative personality and the once seedy, gallant underworld of the culture has cleaned itself up in earnest. Toreros don't read books any more, they look out for themselves in ¡Hola! magazine. Kennedy says that the corrida, ‘although it has its own rigours and remarkable individual toreros, currently lacks the overarching discipline, creative economy and communicative breadth of an art’. I shall continue going all the same, because I have witnessed, once or twice, something more heart-stopping than any art. So has she. But her most successful account of it, imbued with the serious pleasure that's so hard to explain, is a description of film footage of Domingo Ortega in 1956, when he was two years into retirement. The audience have called him down from the stands, where he has been sitting in suit and tie, looking like ‘a doctor or a teacher—some distant, monochrome relative, called on to deliver a party piece. But then he begins with the bull and becomes himself.’
Ortega's movements slip between formality, elegance and play, there is always a great deal of play, of physically evident delight …
During the faena he bows, swoops and pirouettes, each action drawing the bull in closer. From time to time Ortega strokes its horn while it passes, looking at him, or smoothes at its side with his palm … He leads the bull low to left and right, or lifts its head as he wishes, as they both appear to wish. He performs a molinete and then another, swirling the muleta out around him as he turns in something which is more than an adorno—a cheap trick involving no danger—something which is a celebration of this moment, these creatures, this breath, this fine time they are having together. Man and animal, animal and man, they might have known each other all their lives. Watching them, it seems quite possible that this integrated motion might simply continue, that there is no reason for it to ever stop. Even after the sword has gone in clean to the hilt and Ortega has stepped away, the bull skips after him, seems unaware it's over now.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5746
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 clearly that, ‘When I write, my aim is to communicate, person to person. I am a human being telling another human being a story which may or may not be true, but which hopefully has a life and truth and logic of its own’.1 That comment, exemplifying Kennedy's rigorous intellectual honesty, perhaps contradicts the aim of this chapter. She refuses to endow her fictions with any ‘literary terminology … it will have nothing to do with the work’ (100). Yet Kennedy's disavowals do constitute a gloss on her art: fictions of communication, identification (words she herself uses in her essay), and love—impossible, achieved, imagined.
Kennedy refers to the ‘deliverance’ which a work of fiction can achieve, releasing the reader ‘from the limitations of my isolated individual reality’; the effort to escape the enclosures of intellectual and emotional solitude drives most of Kennedy's protagonists. Her writing has a measure of intellectual scepticism; but Kennedy's gift among her contemporaries is to combine an intelligence, political and moral, with an exquisite emotional sensitivity. For Kennedy, writing is a ‘sensual rather than an intellectual process’, a ‘spiritual experience of enormous power’ (100).2 The sensuality of the word is always present: ‘I love these words. These words are lovely.’3
A prolific writer, her first collection of short fiction—Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains—was published in 1990; and in 1994 and 1997, further short story collections followed, Now That You're Back and Original Bliss.4 She has written drama and screenplays for film and television (for example, Ghostdancing for BBC Scotland TV, 1995, and the film Stella Does Tricks, 1997) as well as non-fiction (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and On Bullfighting), and cultural and literary journalism. In 1998, she produced a collection of poetry from her performance work Delicate, entitled Absolutely Nothing.5 Her work has received extensive critical acclaim and earned numerous prizes. In 1993, she was voted one of Granta's twenty best British novelists (along with Candia McWilliam and Iain Banks; unlike many other contemporary Scottish women writers, Kennedy has been critically subsumed into a larger literary ‘Britishness’ in certain circles). This chapter explores Kennedy's longer fiction, Looking for the Possible Dance (1993), So I Am Glad (1995) and Everything You Need (1999).6 It takes its impulse from the way in which Kennedy has spoken of her own writing—the ‘sensual’ and the ‘spiritual’, the process of writing as emotion filling the spaces between words—and examines the formal artistry of her fiction and its inscriptions of desire, memory, loss (what might be called Kennedy's ‘ghost writing’), estrangement and love.
All Kennedy's fiction is narratologically complex. Her characteristic stylistic trait is the use of free indirect speech and thought. Kennedy's deft use allows intimate access to characters' interiority, her prose often syntactically recapitulating the interior thought process while emphasising the ironic distancing of conventional third-person narration. For example:
‘That's right’. He wiped his mouth with one hand, as if he didn't like the taste of what he'd said.
He's such a terrible liar, he really shouldn't even try.
She waited, although she could guess that he'd rather she didn't, that he'd hoped the conversation might be over with. ‘Nathan—’ but she stopped herself from going on.
He doesn't even want me here …
Kennedy's first novel, Looking for the Possible Dance, is less conceptually and formally experimental than her subsequent work but exemplifies a characteristic narratological device: the ‘expendable’ temporal framework. This might be defined as the instability of tense which renders the past and present lives of characters in intimate proximity. Two different narratives of time are braided seamlessly together so that the multiplicities of the narrative are worked through with those of identity and desire. The train journey from Glasgow to London undertaken by Margaret, Kennedy's central protagonist (ultimately ending in return), cuts a clear, linear narrative line. The motif of the journey, the acts of departure and return, underpins the book (Colin leaving Margaret; Margaret leaving her father) and lends it an overall pattern of circularity. The end of the journey is the end of the line narratively speaking—the book's end—and, figuratively, spells resolution for Margaret: ‘Her track is beginning to bind itself under others’ (249). Entwined around Margaret's journey are recollections and memories. The complex, haunting constellations of memory—‘a ghost, with a time past restoring’ (Everything, 5)—are a constant theme in Kennedy's work. Different strands of recollection constitute Margaret's interior journey, often in a sensuous, Proustian cluster: ‘As tall, green barley smears across the windows of her train, Mr Lawrence walks across one of Margaret's dreams. She can feel his breath like dust … Then her mind draws up the smell of hot, small gravel and the feel of it … This is a memory from the summer’ (Looking, 23).
The novel's central ‘memorial’ structure is Margaret's relationship with her father; the central narrative ‘moment’, which itself stems from the first paternal evocation, is the ceilidh. The recollected original dance evokes an innocence to contrast with the ‘fall’ of the ceilidh. Here, Margaret's boyfriend Colin meets the loan shark dealer who will try to kill him, and Margaret's débâcle with her misogynistic employer and his drunk, despairing wife ensures her dismissal. In both instances, Margaret is unwittingly complicit, as Richard Todd demonstrates; the ceilidh is a night full of narrative ironies.8 In the novel's dissolution of past and present boundaries, Kennedy's narrator is playful, withholding yet also implying larger outcomes: ‘In his future, Colin has this memory’ (Looking, 91). So I Am Glad echoes this manipulation of readerly expectations where the narrator, Jennifer, guards Martin/Savinien's identity: ‘I would love to tell you who he is right now’ (39). In Everything You Need, Nathan Staples's seven stories together constitute the story of his daughter's life and his confession that he is her father.
In Looking for the Possible Dance, therefore, a non-linear but associative narrative is found; for Margaret, certain words spark associations. The most intricate interweaving occurs with the encounter with James on the train, a ‘boy or perhaps a man, his face seems older than his body’ (55). Interspersed with written communications (which chart their growing mutual attachment) are memories, chiefly of the ceilidh. The encounter is deeply moving but resists any sentimentalised assumptions or simplification. Their paper colloquies, tender, comic, ironic by turns, address the possibilities of communication. Through typographical experimentation, language—the evasions, ellipses, interpretations of words—is foregrounded: ‘PEOPLE CAN TALK TO “Yes. You meet people you can talk to and be yourself with. Not often, but you do. Are you yourself now?” YES NO PILLS NO JAGS ALL MEEEE’ (191). The connection, rare in James's life, ends when Margaret's address is blown ‘along the platform out of sight’ as James ‘struggles out of the blanket to wave back’ (170). Communication is won, only to end ironically in loss.
Kennedy's next novel, So I Am Glad, concerns an emotional intimacy which cannot ultimately survive; an erotic and spiritual dialogue between the seventeenth-century Cyrano de Bergerac, writer, soldier, philosophe, and Jennifer, a contemporary Glaswegian radio announcer. Love breaches the centuries but only gradually, for Jennifer must renounce her avowed emotional isolation. The figure of Jennifer, ‘professional enunciator’ (37), anticipates the contrast between professional articulateness and private inarticulacy which Everything You Need explores through the emotional solipsism of its community of writers. Her job is a combination of professionalised loneliness and one-way communication. Jennifer's calculated quiescence, however, is paradoxical; as a narrator she strikes an extraordinary intimacy with the reader of her ‘testament’. There is a tender, playful and subversive bond which pivots, as in most of Kennedy's fictions, on the tension between disclosure and concealment. ‘Do you still like me? Did you ever? Need to? Maybe not’ she asks (129). Her narrative, the writing out of her love for Cyrano Savinien de Bergerac, is confessional. She strives for verisimilitude throughout her tale and her self-revelation: ‘I am not emotional. You should know that about me … I feel you should be better informed’ (4-5). She lays bare yet denies the identities—sexual, social, familial—which constitute the self transformed by the loving encounter. Psychological admissions made to the reader(s) are retracted as if too compromising: ‘I will tell you soon about my parents … but when I do, you'll already know they played no part in making me how I am’ (6).
Yet the act of writing, the process of recollection, is an emotional exorcism. It is a compulsive act, incumbent upon Jennifer for her own needs as much as any spurious reader's:
Now this section, you needn't read or really bother with. It won't add to your understanding of the book, or of the story it's trying to tell. Here is where I'll put something down that's for me, a corner of all this writing which is only mine and not a confidence I'm going to offer, not part of my calculations.
She then recounts the strangeness of her parents, their temporary need for her as a child for ‘their own, closed reasons’ (71), so that one ‘reticence’ becomes enfolded in another. Jennifer's possessive claim of certain narrative moments of sanctity or privacy intensifies the text's ‘self-consciousness’; the tale as a whole questioning larger issues of temporal, spatial, sexual and moral identities. Jennifer's story is paradoxical in another way. She confesses to vacuity, being ‘empty’: ‘I can dig down as deep as there is to dig inside me and truly there is nothing there, not a squeak’ (7). This is both an excuse and a defence: if ‘nothing terribly bad has ever happened’ (6) to Jennifer, then from where does her pain come? This sense of herself as a tabula rasa, a blank sheet or canvas on which to be written, works with the text's underlying idea about the redemptive grace of love.
Kennedy's fictions take liberty with narrative structure and tense. So I Am Glad echoes the wilfulness of her first novel: ‘Now I'm going to cheat. We are high on the lip of the new year. …’ (137). This section exemplifies many Kennedy traits: the defamiliarising description of the mundane or quotidian (‘Each street lamp supported a kind of fish shoal halo’ (139)); the philosophical ‘vignette’, infused with a shot of the narrator's quasi-satiric paranoia (‘THE MEANING OF THIS SHAPE IS YOUR FUTURE, WHAT FUTURE WILL IT BE? PLEASE THINK IN THE SPACE PROVIDED’ (139)). Jennifer dreams of Savinien: ‘Back. With me. I was happy. We were happy’ (140). The simplicity of this reunion is partly mocked by Jennifer, a dream neither labyrinthine nor Freudian. Despite this, the idea of the dream, and the ideal self-containedness of dream, is a leitmotif for the novel. Jennifer's story is a tale of love and reincarnation; a fable in which the miraculous is manifest among the ordinary. The imaginative or dreamt is part of the novel's intellectual and psychological fabric.
The entire novel, the kernel of Jennifer's story, is spun from the provisionality of its narrative, the assumption on Jennifer's part that its miraculous fiction will not be credible. Part of this desire to attain ‘the truth’ (19) is realised in the filmic or documentary style of the narrative. Jennifer, as narrator, uses visual frames: ‘Now I want to show you someone else’ (8). She concedes, ‘So you have the full picture now’ though she herself seeks literal and textual invisibility: ‘I wouldn't leave a trace. Of course, that wouldn't be the only alteration now. This story will, among other things, form a record of various cuts’ (10). The verity of the image, as it were, is also important in Everything You Need where the opening ‘sequence’ reconstitutes the visual memory of Nathan Staples's estranged wife whom he loves still.
Most of Kennedy's fictions construct their own metafictions or metanarratives. This is exemplified not only by their artistic formalism but in the process by which the act of writing is deconstructed by Kennedy's protagonists, usually for its emotionally sacrificial nature: ‘the whole writing a book thing might make me wonder just what kind of a person I could be … I should get a life’ (So I Am Glad, 129). The novice writer, Jennifer, speaks of writing as ‘paying [the] penalty’ (186). This flippant existential and writerly angst is writ large in Everything You Need which satirises the London metropolitan literary world and the crass professionalisation of literature, the marketplace presided over by the benign but ultimately disillusioned and despairing Jack Grace, Nathan's agent and beloved, tragic companion. Mary Lamb's seven-year writing fellowship includes her ‘baptism’ into that commercial world from which Nathan strives to protect her; like Jennifer, she is a novitiate to writing. The process of becoming a writer lies self-referentially at the heart of So I Am Glad and Everything You Need.
Both novels also share a fascination with the text, the created object or artefact. Whether the earlier work is memoir, testament, fiction, document, there are other smaller ‘texts’ encompassed within the larger which play upon the concepts of writing, communication, language. Jennifer's letter to Savinien writes her miraculous love into being, textual shape or form, while she never allows Savinien, its recipient, to read it. Instead, as part of the interior narrative, she lays it bare upon the page for her voyeuristic readers or witnesses: ‘Think of what follows as the letter I would have written then and it will serve you and the story perfectly well. Indulge me for a page’ (203). In turn, Savinien inscribes his love for her in a letter written in French, a language incomprehensible to Jennifer. In the elaborate baroque conceits of Savinien's language, the words l'amour/love are broken apart, the act of translation or spelling out the first transformation of that love into the death/La Mort which condemns it: ‘I knew the love he meant, the one that included darkness and loving on alone’ (236). Writing is the attempt to find presence, to restore an absence or, in Jennifer's words, an emptiness. It is also erotic: ‘If I do not touch the paper often I hope that when I lift it out and warm it there will always be something about it like the scent of him’ (236). Jennifer's ‘marvellous’ tale is a commemoration of love but also enshrines both the loss and the indirection that separates the end of it from the beginning: ‘You'll have read, I suppose, the opening of this book, about all of that calmness I no longer have. Sometimes the best beginning is a lie’ (280).
Everything You Need is Kennedy's most recent fiction about fiction, a meditation on the agonistic and redemptive power of writing. The work is divided into seven ‘sections’ which span the seven years of Mary Lamb's fellowship before she emerges as ‘Mary Lamb the writer’. Nathan gives Mary seven codified rules of writing, urging her to believe that ‘no one can stop you being a writer’ while he dreads the consequences of her creativity: ‘they were both—quite willingly—at the mercy of their minds. He would know how much she was his daughter’ (185). Mary fears Nathan's judgement at first but they both find communion ‘in the imperfection of her words’ (185). There are small ironic tendernesses to Nathan's role as tutor/father: he urges her ‘to look after her words’ so that the bond between the writer and the written is a loving shelter; and yet language is not ‘own[ed]’ (Rule Four, 325). Writing is also a dangerous vocation; Foal Island is a needful sanctuary for writers like Joe,9 who has died in spirit (483), and Lynda who, to Nathan's horror, shows Mary her pierced labia and describes writing as a ‘monster’ needing to be controlled (163). This, together with Nathan's suicide attempts, draws correspondences between writing and mutilation, a creative act which can also be self-destructive.
The seven-year structure parallels the seven stories which make up Nathan's ‘book’ for Mary (this numerological symbolism underpins the text). This is Nathan's ‘proper book’, to make Mary ‘proud’ (105), replacing the letters ‘with nothing definite to say’ (297) which he writes to her, ironically shown to him by Mary. Typographically, this is set apart from but interwoven with the main fabric of the text, constructed not as a simple linear narrative but ranging from Mary's infancy to Maura's pregnancy (Mary/Maura: daughter/wife); from Nathan's intense desires for Maura to their final brutal separation in London. It is Nathan's part-fiction, part-testament, part-confession, a retelling or admission to his daughter of his past and his present love for her. It is the most important text he has ever written.
Nathan must learn to love, to give himself up to his daughter; the third of his narratives reveals this arduous task by presenting his own intrusions (Kennedy's stylistic marker of free indirect thought). Nathan interrupts himself, ironically confessing his fear of confession. He desires to change the narrative, ‘his story’, to efface its pain by the wilful act of ‘editing out’ or resorting to fictive inventiveness: ‘And why the last two paragraphs? You don't need them … You've even lost your narrative backbone now’ (403-4). Revelation of the text is the very revelation of love: ‘Who is this for, really—do tell? Not the daughter, surely? Not ever anyone but the wife. Maura—who never liked to read you … But Mary will read me. In the end, she'll read me and she'll know what I mean, because we're like each other. She'll take in what I give her and she'll add herself and we will fit’ (221). Mary observes him writing ‘her story’, noticing that as he writes in recovery from his final failed suicide attempt that there are only ‘a handful of pages left’ (547). Mary becomes the ultimate judge of Nathan's writing in a reversal of roles. The final page of the book is also that of Nathan's story: ‘I've already written out everything I know’. It is both gift and plea: ‘Please, my darling, have need of me’ (567). Writing is the act and art of love—the final seventh rule when the other rules have become dispensable—while that of reading, no less, is a reciprocation of that love, an absolution according to the novel's metaphorical texture. Writing and reading in Kennedy is instilled with eroticism and may signify restoration or catharsis: ‘If, in this world, I could, I would write you whole and well’ (Night Geometry, 126).
In So I Am Glad, Kennedy writes about the repressive hurt of the family. To the child Jennifer, her parents maintain a conspiracy of silence, a veil of secrecy (22) so that she responds in kind by seeking to keep herself ‘safe’ from them (71). There is another, more significant ‘fable’, however, in Kennedy's longer fiction which explores familial unions rather than fragmentation. Her first and third novels present a triangulation of desire: the figure of the young woman (Margaret, Mary) and her two loci of desire, the father and the lover. The love between father and daughter is exquisitely drawn; no other contemporary Scottish woman writer explores the complexity of father-daughter devotion.10 Perhaps such a desire remains largely unwritten because a conventional ‘feminist’ reading might perceive the daughter as a ‘gift’ of exchange in a male economy of desire (Mary Lamb claims she is caught between the two ‘bookends’ of Jonathan and Nathan (Everything, 160)). To speak (as a woman) of this love is immediately to invoke a taboo. The bond in Looking for the Possible Dance is not necessarily imbued with sexual import but in Everything You Need the daughter erotically (mis)recognises the father. Mary is unaware of Nathan's real identity so that only Nathan recognises the transgression and redresses it by arranging that Mary witness Lynda, another of the island writers, fellating him. Through the prevention of the incest taboo another is constructed in its place: the sexuality of the father is enacted before the daughter. Here, Kennedy articulates the unspeakable with an extraordinary sensitivity. The foregrounding of father and daughter is partly achieved by the elision in both novels of the mother figure. In Looking for the Possible Dance, Margaret barely knows the mother who left, the novel's one symbolic act of a journey without return. Margaret at one point desires to ‘mother’ her father but this is not oppressive. In Everything You Need, Mary is brought up in the loving tenderness of the Uncles, Bryn and Morgan; when she leaves them for the first time, there is pain but not that which had accompanied her mother's irreparable act of leaving (32). The earlier novel enshrines a daughter's love for her father but also depicts Margaret's mourning his ineffable loss; the retrospective narrative renders the vivid re-creations of her father in memoriam. At the Methodist dance, he asserts that: ‘“Everything else is a waste of time …” She … wondered what he meant’ (1, 2). This aphorism implies a profound sadness, a denial or loss on the father's part: he urges that Margaret be ‘more alive than me … You'll remember to do that for me’ (5). The rest of the novel might be seen as Margaret's effort to fulfil the promise of that night, sustaining her early desire ‘to please … oblige’ (4) him as a matter of keeping faith. It begins a web of recollection and association: as she begins to dream on the train (52), the sound of her father is constant; his injunction ‘to live’ haunts her until she is angry that he is no longer there to be told how she lives: ‘Like, I can breathe fire. I learned how to do that. And other things … her hands were throbbing. She thought of slipping them flat against her father's back and rubbing her chin into his shoulder as if they were going to start a slow dance’ (175).
Here, the paternal is not linked with prohibition: ‘Her father and her pleasure have always been close’ (6). The relationship with her boyfriend Colin is charted against that with her father. His memory haunts her, ‘like a cry springing up from out of clear water’ (64): how he consoled her when Colin had left for London (‘He hugged her, gave her that silence again’ (67)). For Margaret, her father's death is eternally renewed (86): ‘she would … wake up in the morning with something she hadn't known before … Sometimes she knew her daddy must have planted it’ (101). Protectively, he tries to save her from the ‘mistakes’ he himself made in love (111): in the creation of her desire, Margaret paradoxically has the masculine ‘point of view’ as reference. She ‘discovers’ ‘in her sleep’ her father asking her to stay through love: ‘We're more than family, we're the same. Two parts of one thing, do you see?’ (154). This dreamt space of tenderness she deliberately withholds from Colin (155): the most articulate language of desire in the novel is spoken by father and daughter.
In Everything You Need, the daughter is also made in the image of the father, united in ‘their capacity for longing’ (345). The ‘theft’ of Mary from Nathan requires that he learn her history. Mary at first resents his inquisitiveness, the demanding nature of his literary tutelage. Because he is dead to her, Nathan must achieve a kind of resurrection. Another father and daughter exist within the novel: the young girl, Sophie, who belongs to the writer Joe and whom Mary ironically first sees cradled by Nathan (155). When she nearly drowns, her return is almost miraculous. Loss makes recovery more precious. This successful restoration of the child is countered by the story of the lost, dead child on the mainland. Between these two fables of loss and restoration, Kennedy charts a tale of daughter-father love which refuses silence. At the heart of the novel is the recovery of a fundamental symbiosis: ‘When I bleed, she cries’, Nathan recalls of an incident when Mary had accidentally cut his lip (147). ‘Please, God’, he writes, ‘never take me from this’ (147).
Kennedy frequently invests sexual desire with violence. In the novella Original Bliss, she writes in visceral detail about the dark consolations of hard core pornography for Edward Gluck;11 in So I Am Glad, the sadomasochism of Jennifer's relationship with her original ‘partner’ Steve is enacted. In this, Kennedy again invokes taboos of various kinds. The narrator is conscious of such transgression: ‘Want to see it? Close your eyes now’ (131). Sadism is performed by the female figure upon the male; as in Original Bliss, the masculine is the abject position. Part of Jennifer's sexual history in the novel exposes the banal mundanity of sex, a consolation to her because she can choose silence:
Oh, a few words now and then are unavoidable, of course. I can remember. THERE NOW LATER and NOT (THERE, NOW, LATER) YES and NO DID and YOU and HAPPY? YET? But that isn't speaking.
The relationship with Steve is one of need, dependence, denial (50-2), and intercourse is computed as a tedious, meaningless equation (‘Cunt ＋ Cock = ____’ (92)). Yet it seems a simplification of the erotic complexities of Kennedy's writing to suggest that in this novel, and in her work as a whole, there is a clear-cut polarity between ‘bad’ sex and ‘good’, nor is there simply suggested a distinction between ‘articulate’ and ‘non-articulate’ sexual desire, even though Jennifer confesses ‘I've never liked public discussions of love’ (90) and then announces her ‘personal definition of love’ or emblem as handcuffs. There might well be a ready connection between the verbal significations of the cuffs—‘Clickilicklick. STOP. Because you should stop’ (91)—and her plea when a child to parents driving too fast ‘to stop speeding, to stop being so together, to stop being’ (104) before she witnesses their sexual caresses.
Above all, excess defines the novel's sadism: the fear and liberation of going too far. Jennifer is unable ‘to stop’ in the sexual persona of Captain Bligh which emancipates her from any ‘feminine’ inhibition (91). She is gratified by inscribing pain upon the body painlessly, as it were, when intimate recognition of that body is prevented: ‘you need only look at him when you wish, you will already know where to strike’ (94). The novel speaks the unspeakable in articulating female sadistic pleasure but it is also an acknowledged, then renounced, transgression, as Jennifer severely abuses a silenced Steve, as if ‘finding an edge and stepping beyond it and gripping that edge and throwing it away’ (127). The novel's heart of darkness provides an arresting, if ultimately ‘censored’, inscription of desire.
Though desire reaches its extremity here, that violent ‘edge’ is part of a ‘gradient’ or continuum of sexual desire in Kennedy's writing. The essence of desire is that it entails self-abnegation, a renunciation of some kind. Kennedy has been praised for writing about sexuality from both the female and male ‘points of view’, and of achieving a kind of ‘genderless’ fusion.12 This seems curious, the kind of inverse commendation bestowed on Alan Warner, for example, for his female ‘ventriloquism’. In fact, desire—and the significance of renunciation—is arguably written in the feminine: Looking for the Possible Dance and Everything You Need describe the loss of virginity for their main female protagonists. The ‘rite’ is more elaborate for Mary in the latter—as if to ‘seal’ her departure for Foal Island—when the Uncles discover her and Jonathan together (the ‘masculine’ again a circumference around female desire but in no way a repression or negation of it). Kennedy's writing depicts the sexual encounter as either alternately or a fusion of intense eroticism and violence (exemplified by the figure of Cyrano de Bergerac). For Margaret and Mary, their male lovers may hurt in their penetration but the characteristic fusion of assertion and abnegation on their part seemingly makes Kennedy's writing articulate the censored paradoxes of contemporary female desire; it redraws the permissable boundaries of the female erotic.
So I Am Glad is Kennedy's most intense and philosophical meditation on desire. An unknown or uncertain identity is erotically liberating: ‘Good morning. Whoever you are’ (66). In the act of first naming her strange ‘guest’, Jennifer partially invents her lover, and submits unquestioningly to the dissolution of his identity: ‘I let Martin turn into Savinien’ (84). Articulating his name, when ‘the voice’ is charged with erotic frisson throughout the novel, is an intimacy in itself (11, 77). Their love is a collision of historical, national and cultural identities so that in Paris Savinien re-enacts an extravagant seventeenth-century ‘Exercise in Love’ (88).
Several reasons may underlie Kennedy's choice of Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-55), soldier, lover, poet, playwright, philosopher, libertin; she has written that she grew to identify with him (in his roles as sceptic, satirist, iconoclast) (Critical Quarterly, 53). His writing was resurrected by the nineteenth century after a period of decline, and the ‘mythologising’ of Cyrano de Bergerac was cemented by Edmond Rostand in 1897.13 His fictional status is punningly alluded to by Kennedy's novel so that her Cyrano sees himself as a kind of palimpsest (80). In the Paris Bibliothèque Nationale, Savinien reads for himself the expurgation and censorship of his writing, ‘My words, my books’ (270), until the library becomes a mausoleum, and writing a ghostly act. Kennedy's fidelity to Savinien's own writing is interesting: the journey which her fictional Cyrano describes seems to echo his own literary account of a fantastic voyage, L'Autre Monde, which drew philosophical relativism, histoire comique and social satire into its marvellous fiction.14 Kennedy's ‘invention’ of Savinien's voice often emulates the philosophical gravitas and beauty of seventeenth-century discourse: ‘my heart is clean … I can give you access to my soul’ (250). The figure of Cyrano de Bergerac appositely licenses the ‘philosophy’ of love which the novel seemingly espouses: the duality of souls. Jennifer begins and ends in solitude but in-between she discovers ‘that single moment when you truly touch another person’ (78). ‘I assumed … Savinien and I were the same’ (102): in an echo of Renaissance Neoplatonism, Jennifer and Savinien are indivisible so that for the first time she can utter the charmed pronoun of lovers—‘We. That's Savinien and I. Us’ (222)—and the word ‘love’ meaningfully (233). Their dreams coalesce until that very simultaneity is a harbinger of Savinien's final departure.
That ‘death’ is anticipated throughout the novel, not simply in his violent, near-death encounters in Glasgow, but in the sheer precariousness of his physical existence. Jennifer must literally and metaphorically sustain him: he breathes more easily ‘Because of me’ (31). His paradoxical fragility is erotically manifest in the shining trace or imprint which he leaves upon her skin yet which inscribes the possibility of his disappearance. Jennifer preserves ‘the sheer miracle of Savinien's existence’ (261) in words, as if it is one of Cyrano de Bergerac's fabled utopian worlds.
The very title of Kennedy's first novel deploys a present participle, underlining an unfulfilled act; the idea of longing or need binds together the protagonists of her most recent novel. The typologies of longing so embedded in all of Kennedy's longer fiction give them the structure of a quest. Everything You Need explicitly uses the medieval romance metaphor of the Grail (396) and retells the story of Nathan (the atheist) on a writer's tour to Jerusalem. Kennedy is not an overtly religious writer but religious metaphors underlie, or can be applied to, her fiction;15 In Looking for the Possible Dance, Colin is literally crucified for his attempts to defeat the loan sharks. Kennedy's fiction contains an existential and philosophical darkness which co-exists with love's saving grace; it also embodies the specificity of that affirmative process as rooted in a quest structure, and the idea, most explicit in Everything You Need, of a secular ‘deliverance’.
In this chapter Kennedy's fictional enactments of the intimacy, estrangement and eroticism of writing have been suggested. The ‘intellectual’ and the ‘sensual’ are married. Her work articulates verbal and psychological thresholds between disclosure and revelation, and the trope of memory—the immanence of the past within present lives—is a constant. Most Kennedy protagonists are haunted by ghosts. The underlying structure of Kennedy's novels is loss and their ‘quest’ a restoration, whether moral, sexual or spiritual. She writes uniquely about the violence of desire, pleasure and transgression, and creates an almost fabled beauty at the heart of her most tender fictions about lovers, and daughters and fathers. While her work as a whole is about the emotionally and politically disenfranchised and dispossessed, it also aims to discover the means of (re)enchantment.
‘Not Changing the World’, in Ian A. Bell (ed.), Peripheral Visions: Images of Nationhood in Contemporary British Fiction (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1995), pp. 100-2 (100).
See also Kennedy's essay in Critical Quarterly, 37:4 (1995), pp. 52-5.
‘Star Dust’, in Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains (1990; London: Phoenix, 1995), p. 83.
A. L. Kennedy, Now That You're Back (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994); Original Bliss (London: Jonathan Cape, 1997).
A. L. Kennedy, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (London: British Film Institute, 1997); On Bullfighting (London: Yellow Jersey Press, 1999); Absolutely Nothing (Glasgow: Mariscat Press, 1998).
Editions referred to are Looking for the Possible Dance (London: Vintage, 1998); So I Am Glad (London: Vintage, 1996); Everything You Need (London: Jonathan Cape, 1999).
I am grateful to Kirsty Williams for allowing me to read her B.A. University of Strathclyde dissertation on this subject: ‘A. L. Kennedy: A Dialogue of Theme and Style’ (1999).
Richard Todd, Consuming Fictions: The Booker Prize and Fiction in Britain Today (London: Bloomsbury, 1996), pp. 160-1.
The novel's literal and imagined islands evoke traditional literary connotations of the marginal, the exotic, otherness, exile and enchantment. Foal Island is itself a history, a fable, as when Louis assumes ‘the task of translating the island for her [Mary], unveiling all its little histories and dialects’ (124). First ‘sacked and burned’ by a planted Tudor lord who exiled the monks and other inhabitants, the island evokes the paradigm of other clearances and plantations (the Scottish Highlands, Ireland) though this particular colonisation ends with a beautiful mythical reincarnation (125-6).
Dorothy McMillan, ‘Constructed out of Bewilderment’, in Bell, Peripheral Visions, pp. 80-99 (96).
A. L. Kennedy, ‘Original Bliss’, in Kennedy, Original Bliss (London: Jonathan Cape, 1997), pp. 151-311.
Eleanor Stewart Bell, ‘Scotland and Ethics in the Work of A. L. Kennedy’, Scotlands, 5:1 (1998), pp. 105-13 (108); Alison Smith, ‘Four Success Stories’, Chapman, 74-5 (1993), pp. 177-92 (192).
Edwin Morgan, Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac: A New Verse Translation (Manchester: Carcanet, 1992).
See Edward W. Lanius, Cyrano de Bergerac and the Universe of Imagination (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1967). See also Kennedy's film Ghostdancing, BBC Scotland (1995).
In Critical Quarterly, 37:4 (1995), Kennedy alludes to her religiosity (55).
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2253
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 though short stories were front gardens and novels arboreta. There's a certain sizeism at play, and a bit of slack thinking. Short stories are shorter than novels and that's it. No proper writer approaches them as a thing to be dealt with frivolously, as it were, in the spare time left by a novel. Short stories are the repositories of life swiftly apprehended. Because they are short, they are often thought easy. There can be no more malicious misrepresentation.1
McWilliam highlights a long-standing set of attitudes towards the short story in Britain in general; it is, typically, regarded as the little, and often inferior, sister of the novel, a form of exercise on which writers cut their teeth before moving on to more challenging forms. We should, perhaps, be more ashamed of this attitude to short fiction in Scotland then elsewhere in the United Kingdom, since there is a long and fine tradition of short stories. Walter Scott developed the form in stories such as ‘The Two Drovers’ and it is a tradition which runs through R. L. Stevenson and on into Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Women have also written successfully in this genre; Violet Jacob, Naomi Mitchison and Jessie Kesson, to name only a few.
However, the method of publication of the short story—often in journals, periodicals and anthologies—means that they are more likely to go out of print than novels, and in many cases the work of their predecessors has been unavailable to the present generation of women writers. Naomi Mitchison's stories, for example, were unavailable until Isobel Murray's collection Beyond This Limit, where the title story is reproduced for the first time since its original, limited edition.2 Violet Jacob's stories too have only recently come back into print.3
In spite of this history of neglect, recent years have seen considerable activity in the short story form among Scottish women writers. It is clear that the republication of work by writers like Mitchison and Jacob, and the fact that there has been a market for it, has contributed to this situation, but other factors have also been significant. There has, of course, been a general upturn in Scottish writing and publishing since the 1970s, and the role of James Kelman, whose work has been key in much of Scottish writing's rejuvenation, cannot be over-estimated. Kelman, who looks to the United States and continental Europe where the short story has always enjoyed greater status, is himself a master of the form and his collections demonstrate what can be achieved in the short story, highlighting the distinctively charged space it may occupy in contrast to the novel, and the extraordinary literary effects it can achieve. Kelman's work has given a newfound credibility to the short story in Scotland, and suggested ways in which it may be developed; his influence is evident on many of the women short-story writers working in Scotland today.
Looking further back, it is evident that the influence of Muriel Spark has also been considerable—an influence reflected in writers like Candia McWilliam and Shena Mackay. Spark, of course, launched her writing career with a short story, ‘The Seraph and the Zambesi’, and her collections of short stories—The Go-Away Bird and Bang, Bang You're Dead—provide fine examples of the form.4 Spark's general success as a writer has ensured that these stories have remained in print and, perhaps more significantly, her emphases on well-crafted writing, brevity of vision and on ‘life swiftly apprehended’ in her novels as well as short stories have ensured a respect for these aspects of writing in Scotland.
Finally, short story writing has also benefited enormously from the publication of anthologies in Scotland in recent years. The Collins collection (published since 1973), the Association for Scottish Literary Studies New Writing Scotland (itself in its eighteenth year) and the Macallan/Scotland on Sunday short story competition and its related publication have all had a significant effect on both the writing and reception of short stories in Scotland today. These anthologies provide a site for discovering new talent—Rose, Smith and Kennedy have all been published by New Writing Scotland—while often they provide the breakthrough which unknown writers need in order to gain publishing contracts—Dilys Rose, Ali Smith, Chris Dolan and Michel Faber, all past winners of the Macallan/Scotland on Sunday competition have each gone on to gain the much sought-after contract for a first collection of short stories.
Perhaps the most significant of all these writers is A. L. Kennedy whose Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains (1990) was published to immediate acclaim, winning its author both the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the Saltire First Book Award.5 It is a collection which maps out the territories which have repeatedly concerned Kennedy since she began writing, announcing her interest in both physical and emotional parameters and the spaces available to women within patriarchal ‘geographies’.
Kennedy both acknowledges and downplays her role as a Scottish woman writer, stating ‘I am a woman, I am heterosexual, I am more Scottish than anything else and I write. But I don't know how these things interrelate’.6 This statement acknowledges that while her gender and nationality may be facts of Kennedy's identity, they do not set the agenda to which she writes. However, she continues:
I can't tell you how exciting it was to read Lanark and recognize the atmosphere of a country I knew. A whole part of my life became three-, if not four-dimensional. When I saw the dialogue in The Dear Green Place I was delighted to find the humour and rhythm of something I heard around me … I believe that fiction with a thread of Scottishness in its truth has helped me to know how to be myself as a Scot.
(“Not Changing the World”, 102)
While Kennedy may deny a direct correlation between nation and writing she aligns herself with the generation of writers who, for our times at least, have put a form of Scottishness back on the literary cultural agenda. So too, she stresses the role of language as an element by which we may recognise ourselves in terms of nationhood or, indeed, gender.
The roles available to women are often described in Kennedy's work spatially: ‘Time divides me from my mother and her mother and beyond them there are lines … of women who are nothing more than shadows in my bones’ writes the narrator in “Genteel Potatoes” ‘and as you read this I am somewhere else’ (Geometry, 42). Such positional signifiers are recurrent in Kennedy's writing, announcing an uneasiness in relationships, a desire for proximity and a knowledge of the impossibility of it. This is, of course, the significance of the ‘geometry’ in the title story of this collection, for as the narrator tries to negotiate the terms of her marriage this is expressed through the spatial parameters of their sleeping arrangements; ‘this positioning, our little bit of night geometry, this came to be important in a way I didn't like because it changed. I didn't like it then, as much as I now don't like to remember the two of us together and almost asleep, because, by fair means or foul, you can't replace that. Intensity is easy, it's the simple nearness you'll miss’ (Geometry, 27). In Kennedy's world such statements are significant, because the outward appearance of things does not belie, but usually illuminates the interior. ‘The flat was very like him; in his colours, with his books’ she writes in “Tea and Biscuits” (Geometry, 1) and it is often by their relationship to such outward appearances that the roles available for women are inscribed.
Kennedy's explorations of the boundaries which contain and limit both men and women is subtle, and so too is her engagement with the implications of nation. In “Friday Payday” for example, the girl sometimes longs to leave London for Scotland; ‘Sometimes she just got dead homesick—adverts on the underground for Scotland, they lied like fuck, but they still made you think.’7 She is not alone in Kennedy's world, for here characters frequently travel between Scotland and elsewhere, considering the place of Scotland as part of their identity, even subjectivity, as they do so. In “Christine”, for example, the narrator tells us:
I went to a university in England and came back home as little as possible, because I could no longer be at home there. Scots down south either turn into Rob Roy McStrathspeyandreel or simply become Glaswegian—no one will understand you, if you don't. Rather than smile through a lifetime of simpleton assumptions and kind enquiries after Sauchiehall Street in the frail hope of one day explaining my existence, I chose to be English and to disappear.
(Now That You're Back, 15)
Suggestively, Homi Bhabha, in his work on literature and nation, comments on the role of the stereotype in colonial discourse, suggesting that it is ‘a form of knowledge and identification that vacillates between what is always “in place”, already known, and something that must be anxiously repeated’.8 Here, Kennedy similarly interrogates the options open to those from a marginal culture and expresses the impossibility of a Scot retaining any sense of identity outside the usual clichés.
The ‘lies’ created by such clichés are also the subject of “The Role of Notable Silences in Scottish History”. Kennedy, in fact, is frequently concerned with the relationship between story writing and lies and here the particular lies which are being explored are those which we have invented to describe our Scottish selves: the story of Glen Flasprog, for example, or ‘seven centuries of Scottish slaughter’ (168) and the myth of the Glasgow hardman. Other lies include those about the ‘weather … bridies … culture … socialists … hogmanay and Irn Bru’ (Geometry, 71). However, Bhabha also describes the ‘ambivalence’ of the stereotype (66) and here the story does not simply deconstruct and discard the models we have constructed about Scotland's past, since the ‘lies’ also suggest a sort of truth; while they may leave out ‘the huge, invisible, silent roar of all the people who are too small to record’ (Geometry, 64), there are also lies which may help us learn something about the society in which we live; Scotland's myths are a kind of lie but they may also tell us something about ourselves; like the grid of the city, where ‘ugly things happen under a beautiful light’ (67), they may offer parameters which help us to negotiate our way around ourselves. After all, as the narrator concludes, ‘there's no point being Scottish if you can't make up your past as you go along’ (64). Within such parameters Scotland's disrupted, junctured past, a source of anxiety for so many, becomes a site, for Kennedy, where Scotland's identity can be creatively reinvented.
Kennedy's stories also interrogate both gender and Scottishness via language for often her stories demonstrate a keen sense of the subtleties and nuances within discourse, the spaces between words which help construct and maintain distance or, occasionally, approach proximity. Language both shapes and is shaped by our personal and national identities; in “Christine” for example, the narrator states:
Like many of us, I already had a variety of accents for private and social use. I found it remarkably easy to sound like almost anyone I met. In fact ease had very little to do with it—I would echo whoever I spoke to quite automatically, moving from neutral to bland imitation and back again. Today this makes all situations alike to me—I am consistently slightly out of place, but never uncomfortably so. And if we are ever stuck for conversation people can always ask me where I come from and I can always fail to answer them.
This may well describe the situation of being Scottish (feeling out of place but never uncomfortably so) but it also highlights the way in which identities may be constructed via cultural and ideological narratives. ‘At other times and in another country, that space had been her cunt’ states Suzanne in “Rockaway and the Draw” but now ‘Ben called it his beaver’,9 reminding us that sexuality may also be shaped, or appropriated, by the language which we choose or have imposed upon us.
Candia McWilliam (ed.), Shorts 2: The Macallan/Scotland on Sunday Short Story Collection (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1999), p. vii.
Naomi Mitchison, Beyond This Limit: Selected Shorter Fiction, ed. Isobel Murray (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1986).
Violet Jacob, Flemington and Tales from Angus, ed. Carol Anderson (Edinburgh: Canongate, 1998).
Muriel Spark, ‘The Seraph and the Zambesi’, in Spark, The Go-Away Bird (London: Macmillan, 1958); Muriel Spark, Bang-Bang You're Dead (London: Granada, 1960).
A. L. Kennedy, Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains (1990; London: Phoenix, 1993).
A. L. Kennedy, ‘Not Changing the World’, in Ian A. Bell (ed.), Peripheral Visions: Images of Nationhood in Contemporary British Fiction (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1995), pp. 100-2 (100).
‘Friday Payday’, in Kennedy, Now That You're Back (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), p. 142.
See Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 66.
A. L. Kennedy, ‘Rockaway and the Draw’, in Kennedy, Original Bliss (London: Jonathan Cape, 1997), p. 10.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 982
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 and emptied and smug” Sunday afternoon. On Bullfighting begins with a poignant account of the tragi-comic reason for her decision not to jump.
It was this quiet fourth-floor epiphany that led her to investigate the “complicated, repellent, fascinating, grotesque, sacramental, ugly, ritualistic, haphazard, sacred, and blasphemous” spectacle of bullfighting.
She wanted to write about “people who risk death for a living”. The matador El Yiyo is the sort of man she means. On Aug 30, 1985, Jose Cubero Sanchez, “El Yiyo”, turned his back on a bull he had mortally wounded. While he acknowledged the crowd's applause, the dying animal knocked him to the ground and then gored him with the last of its strength. “The bull's right horn entered the matador's heart, and its last efforts to toss up his body succeeded only in lifting the man to his feet. For an instant, the dead man and the dead bull both stood on the sand. Then El Yiyo walked a few paces and fell. A friend of mine who saw this happen has, quite understandably, never forgotten it.”
The grisly fate of El Yiyo serves to shift the focus of attention from the death of the bull to the death of the matador—and to the involvement of the spectator. What is it about the theatre played out on the bloodied sand of the plaza that resonates so powerfully with the audience (and the reader)?
Kennedy's view of the corrida is informed by the stories of three men, each of whom had a bullfighting-related death: poet Federico Garcia Lorca, author Ernest Hemingway, and matador Juan Belmonte.
Lorca was a “self-loathing sensualist, an incautious but easily damaged artist, a homosexual in conservative, Catholic Spain”. He followed the corrida, and once even had himself carried through the streets, “costumed and bloodied as if he were a matador who had received a fatal cornada” (penetration by a bull's horn). Lorca courted his own death by returning to Nationalist Granada from Madrid on the night of July 13, 1936. He was shot by a Nationalist death squad a month later, “with a couple of extra bullets in his arse, just to show that certain fascist flair for symbolism”.
Kennedy aches to know “why Lorca came looking for extinction”. Did the poet seek to confront death, as matadors do? Matadors like Juan Belmonte, one of Spain's most famous bullfighters. Born in the slums of Seville in 1892, he fought his way to the top of his profession with a dangerous technique. He brought the bull closer to his body than ever before, in a style that emphasised “the strange, brief period during which a man and a wild animal can appear to cooperate.”
Ironically, Belmonte knew that he was a frail man, unable to run and with limited stamina. When almost 70 years old in 1962, he insisted that a massive seed bull be brought for him to play with his cape. His ranch hands, fearing for his safety, made tactful excuses for the bull's absence. “He went back to the ranch house, had a drink, and wrote a short note. And then he shot himself.”
Kennedy thinks that a mysterious sense of duende might link these two men's violent deaths. The word lacks a direct English translation, but Lorca described it as a kind of art with “dark notes … a transcendent, but melancholy, moment conjured up by work with roots in a painful inspiration, a loss, a sacrifice”.
Hemingway was another aficionado of the bullfight with a strong feeling for duende, as his spare, macho writing showed. He killed himself, too: by 1961, his energy was spent, and his talent drowned in alcohol.
Kennedy criticises the “Hemingway bravado … the menopausal bar-room stories, the foreigner trying too hard to be a part of Spain … defining the country, for the first time, as one vast DT-haunted tourist club”.
It's not surprising, then, that her style eschews the testosterone-fuelled stereotypes in favour of meticulous, wry observation. When she describes her flight to Spain on an “aeroplane which smelt of vomit and hot tights”, we recognise the claustrophobic fetor. She goes on to puncture a few macho myths: “The bull which charges hardest and looks the bravest may actually be the most stressed and fearful. So agresividad might be translated by a realist as terror, or extreme stress”.
Like the terrified toro, “we are moving meat”. When she chooses to eat an oxtail stew, and notices “the tail fragments are delicate with, here and there, a tiny joint—I stare at them and think of finger bones”, her connection to the corrida takes a new, intimate twist.
Kennedy, Lorca, Hemingway, Belmonte, and his matador peers are linked by a craving for the “emotional intensity which is a part of taking risks”. Although technically nonfiction, this book is rich in stories and allusions, undercurrents, and emotions. Kennedy brings to her subject a novelist's scope, and she draws compelling links between the fate beckoning from her fourth-floor window, and that stomping behind the matador's cape. Like matadors, we hope for “a kind of acute peace beyond the unendurable, and before the next nasty surprise”.
Kennedy portrays the “entertainment, outrage and sacrament” of the corrida, while recognising also “a great deal of clumsiness, ugliness and confusion”. This is starting to sound rather like life itself—and it's this gift that makes On Bullfighting such an exceptional book.
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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, So I Am Glad (1995), drew its strength from its personality-saturated, first-person narration and its tight, claustrophobic mystery: was its hero, an amnesiac holed up in a Glasgow rooming house, really an incarnation of the seventeenth-century Frenchman, Cyrano de Bergerac? By contrast, Everything You Need employs an old-fashioned throng of eccentric characters and a bevy of narrative techniques to tell its tale. Like So I Am Glad, it is at heart a duet.
Author Nathan Staples lives with a handful of other fitfully suicidal writers on an island off the Welsh coast in a state of more or less constant misery. He pines for his estranged wife and daughter and writes popular slash-and-sex novels that he despises, confiding his despair to his best friend and editor, Jack, an artfully perverse seeker of alcoholic oblivion (Jack's scenes lend the novel its potent air of macabre ribaldry).
Hope, however, muscles its way into Nathan's life when his daughter Mary arrives on the island as a literary initiate, the only person unaware that her tutor is also her father. After her parents' marriage collapsed, Mary was raised by her Welsh “uncles,” her mother's brother and his male lover. Mary has turned out well: she is less of an emotional black hole than her father but also driven to sacrifice romantic happiness for her vocation. Ironically, her new proximity to Nathan occasions his own act of redemptive writing, a heartbreaking novel-within-the-novel that sets out to recapture for Mary, his imagined reader, the corrosion and bliss of his marriage to her mother.
Both father's and daughter's personal perspectives continually break through the omniscient narrative, which reads like a calm sea churned by conflict in the depths below. Kennedy's skill at maintaining the pas-de-deux narration keeps this very long work afloat and veins it with unsparing and wonderfully goofy humor. At times, however, the very intelligence of Mary's voice undermines the credibility of the plot: how can such a sharp-eyed young woman not realize that the man she is constantly sparring with and hugging is her father? (Any teacher-student relationship that involved this much physical contact, however Platonic, is hard to imagine without the requisite lawsuit.)
That said, Everything You Need more than keeps its title promise, not only in terms of its central, father-daughter dance, but in regard to its language and satellite stories as well. Kennedy's words are breath-catchingly original and only now and then (especially in the beginning) overcultivated, breathing life into a fertile supporting cast.
Some members of the latter are better stitched into the central story than others. Mary's “uncles” emerge as two of the most intimately and sympathetically observed characters in the book, but their abrupt dismissal from the text seems discordant. With the exception of the slimly sketched characters of Maura and Jonathan, father and daughter's respective once and future mates, all of the characters open doors to memorable images and insights. There is Louis, the historian, who provides the writers' island with its requisite mythology: Lynda, the “woman's novelist” who has sex with her vegetables—carrots and cucumbers preferred—before making soup from them; and the island's shaman, Joe, who sought truth in the desert only to find that great risk begets not infinite knowledge but the peace of personal limitation. Likewise, in its epic ebb and flow, Everything You Need takes great risks and succeeds on a scale unglimpsed in Kennedy's previous work—a landscape in which the only limitations are the emotional mantraps her characters set for themselves.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 836
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. It's marvelous and horrendous, full of extraordinary insight and sensitivity, but burdened with enough depravity to repel the larger audience she would otherwise attract.
This strikingly odd story revolves around two related activities: writing and parenting, sources of mingled pleasure and despair for Nathan Staples. We meet him during a bungled suicide attempt, a calamity that leaves him depressed and rope-burned. He's a misanthropic pulp novelist, who hasn't written anything good since his wife ran off and took their little girl 15 years ago.
Despite his episode with the noose, he's finally figured out a way to see his daughter, and possibly even be a parent again. Mary Lamb is now 19 and an aspiring writer. She thinks her father died long ago, but Nathan has secretly arranged for her to win a seven-year scholarship to study on Foal Island, a writer's colony off the coast of Wales.
This commune is one of the many marvels that fans relish about Kennedy's inventive fiction. The Foal Island Fellowship floats just shy of ludicrous. Nathan and six other strange writers live on their “rain-asphyxiated” island alone, enduring each other and the equally unpredictable weather.
Their gentle leader encourages them in a vaguely defined mystical tradition that involves “facing extreme risk” seven times. They scoff at his quirky idealism even while engineering brutal acts of self-destruction. (Mary stays in the house of a past member who cut off his head and hands with a circular saw.)
These tortured souls wear the scars of a writer's life on their sleeves—and minds and bodies. They're people who understand Red Smith's famous observation that “writing is easy. Just sit down at the typewriter and open a vein.” They come together for monthly business meetings marked by the kind of profane acrimony only professional writers (or smart sailors) could articulate. But after each bruising battle, they retire for Quaker-like sessions of communal meditation.
It's difficult to imagine why a normal 19-year-old woman would leave her loved ones for seven years to study with this group of grotesque misfits. And it's difficult to imagine why Nathan tutors his daughter for seven years without getting up the courage to tell her who he is. But that's why we need a novelist as good as Kennedy to imagine these wonderful things for us.
Mary Lamb's seven years pass in a leisurely series of anecdotes and conversations over more than 500 pages that are hilarious except when they're heart-breaking. Kennedy writes in a syncopated style that's perpetually surprising, mingling her own voice with the internal and spoken voices of her characters. (Even Nathan's big-hearted dog jumps into the mix now and then.) This is a novelist of extraordinary emotional breadth, as willing to be sweet and sentimental as she is to be coarse and repellent.
While Mary struggles under her father's alternatively irascible and affectionate instruction, we read selected chapters from his autobiography, a secret labor of love that illustrates his failings as a parent and implicitly begs for forgiveness. Kennedy celebrates fatherhood in all its wonder, but she can also clear your head with the blank terror of loving a child so much.
Early in her sojourn on the island, one of the writers tells Mary, “You are willing and—if you think about it—volunteering yourself to take charge of the medium that governs and lies, that defines and dreams and prays, that witnesses truth and condemns to death. And, naturally, such a large thing will take charge of you. It will give you appetites you've never known.”
Nathan knows the cost of devoting one's life to writing, a craft that simultaneously cures and exacerbates loneliness. Seeing his daughter lit with the same passion and beginning to make the same sacrifices excites his pride and frightens him. His Zenlike writing advice is pretty thin (Rule #3: Disregard all praise and criticism), but as a story about a life of words, Everything You Need is literally everything you need.
The publishing industry receives a particularly brutal rebuke from J. D. Grace, Nathan's droll and “forensically compelling” editor in London. He's a repulsive character, dying from a host of illnesses and self-inflicted wounds. The despair he feels about the poor condition of publishing reflects in his own increasingly depraved behavior, rendered here in shockingly explicit detail.
Such is Kennedy's thematic universe, an utterly original mixture of wit and tragedy, ordinary and bizarre, outrageous and sweet. That's enough.
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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 from architecturally tricksy, arty, revisionist, haute Glasgow, and it's also a quiet reserved, retreat from working-class, vernacular Glasgow.
Three years ago, at the intersection of at least two of these worlds, sat Alison Kennedy. She dangled her bare feet from her cramped roof window, the golden sandstone rubbing her heels, and she thought to jump. Following the British publication of Everything You Need writing creatively had become an impossibility because of the death of a friend and the break-up of a relationship with a man who, she concedes, was the love of her life. Enter the vernacular. From street-level below, she heard a man's voice singing a ditty, a sub-Burnsian, hootenanny, debased version of the Scots ballad. It was so teeth-grittingly awful in every respect that Kennedy realized she could not and would not die to its accompaniment. There were, demonstrably, worse things than being a writer who couldn't write.
Thus, Kennedy lives. She opens the door to her attic flat and following the briefest of greetings, flees up a final set of stairs. She disappears from view at a fluid trot like a very lithe but wary fox. Gasping, and beaded with sweat, stair-hating, nicotine-addicted PW finds Kennedy buried deep in the furthest recesses of a sofa, in the room with that window. We look at each other with not a little wariness. Despite combing the Web, it has proven impossible to find an interview of any length with A. L. Kennedy. PW suspects Kennedy of being a reluctant interviewee. Furthermore, PW fears that questions will be dodged or worse, examined and thrown back as useless. At 35, Kennedy is clear-eyed, clear-skinned, observant. She's got the kind of self-contained cool which could be seen as hostile and off-hand. But, as it turns out, the cussedness is merely a way of refusing to play the game; her personal life will not be on the table as barter in exchange for book sales. She will not be drawn into myth-making. Her integrity is both bracing and admirable in these times of Faustian deals.
Minutes into the interview the doorbell rings and Kennedy is off down four flights to answer it. A glance around gives a little insight into the tastes of this unconventional author. You won't find china shepherdesses on her mantle piece, nor photographs of her collecting prizes or posed alongside grinning notables. A tidy row of antique glass eyeballs, in every iris color, prettily bedeck her mantle. Her favorite, it emerges, is a gray with a slightly bloodshot cornea, which she points out, could be popped in when its owner was enduring a hangover. Later in another room, four homely-looking tools sit neatly and precisely placed on a bookcase. They are, she says, two bone chisels, one trocar and a curette. All antique and, she hastens to add, “I don't use any of them.”
If you enter the title of Kennedy's third and latest novel Everything You Need into any web-based book search you will find an array of titles referring to a multitude of topics from car maintenance to job finding to animal husbandry. It's serendipitous then, that this whopping 559-page novel is indeed a guide of sorts to everything one might need to know about the creative process. Set largely in a writer's colony on an island off Wales, the novel follows the progress of Nathan Staples, a writer struggling to recapture his authentic voice following a career trapped in despised genre fiction. Staples has destroyed his life in pursuance of his dreams and now in middle age attempts redemption by arranging to have his long lost daughter Mary join the colony as a neophyte. Meek Mary Lamb believes her father to be dead and much of the novel's tension derives from Nathan's efforts to mentor his daughter without damaging her soul or squelching her zest to write. He waits and waits for the right moment to reveal his true identity, as seven years go by; meanwhile Mary finds her feet and her voice and learns how to maintain equilibrium in the midst of both love and loss. As if this were not enough, within the bounds of this huge novel Kennedy also produces one of the most swinging critical examinations of the mores of modern publishing to be found in contemporary writing.
Since the publication of her first collection of short stories Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains in Edinburgh in 1990, Kennedy has always used the gender-neutral author name A. L. Kennedy and it was a surprise somehow to find that the A stood for Alison; the kind of name a girl might get were she destined to Laura Ashley dresses and unceasing pleasantness. But maybe that's exactly what her parents had in mind when she was born in 1965 in Dundee. She says of her psychology lecturer father and remedial teacher mother, “My mother taught me to read and I could go off and read by myself by the time I was four. But I had no desire to be a writer, ever. I wanted to be a dentist for a while. My parents were both working class people who had educated themselves up to being middle class and their expectations would have been that I would also do something professional and wouldn't slide back.” But even then Kennedy was learning to dig her heels in. “I wanted my parents to get divorced from about the age of six, because you work out that your parents don't like each other and it didn't happen. Then when I was 11 it did happen and it was shit and so you've spent your life with shit happening that you can't control. If [later] there is anything you can control then you do. And I care about books and I care about writing and I care about theatre and I care about language. You spend a huge amount of time in interviews being told ‘X’ is true and you know it isn't.” She didn't feel destined to be a writer and the outsiderism necessary for the role is dismissed as a trait shared by “schizophrenics and alcoholics, and doesn't really mean anything.”
Her chief early passion was theatre. With money scrimped and saved in the now single income household, Kennedy from about the age of 13 would go to London on an overnight bus, see a matinee and an evening show and catch another overnight bus back to Dundee. In her later teens she would go to see the Royal Shakespeare Company perform in the summer week when the full repertoire was running. Shakespeare was, and is, an abiding passion. Not only was she not held back by archaic language as a youngster, but later, when it came to the research phase of her novel So I Am Glad in which the 17th century French writer Cyrano de Bergerac features as a character, she doggedly taught herself French by reading, dictionary in hand, from primary sources at the Bibliothèque Nationale Française in Paris.
When it came to a university education, Kennedy ignored parental longings for her to attend Oxbridge and instead chose Theatre Studies at Warwick University. There she discovered the delights of acting (“ideal if you're shy”). But she felt that acting was a “little bit to the left of what I wanted, so I ended up directing and writing and acting which is effectively being in a novel instead of writing it.” But then as now, it was impossible to raise funding for ground-breaking, experimental theater and thus she moved toward prose fiction, although she still writes for theater, film and television. Nevertheless, the discipline of closely scrutinizing words and analyzing them for weight and meaning was better than any creative writing course and led her toward the meticulous, buffed, immaculate style she has made her own. The move to short stories was seamless in that she was “writing monologues for auditions and most of my short stories were and are monologues, if you want to be technical.”
Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains brought her immediate critical acclaim. She was singled out as one of the most promising voices of her generation and the collection was awarded the Scottish Saltire Book of the Year Award. In fact, she is usually referred to as a “prize-winning writer” (having won the Somerset Maugham and Encore Awards too) but for all that, she has an unusually palsied view of literary prizes following her own experience of sitting on the Booker judging panel.
In Everything You Need, Jack, the literary editor, refers to various prizes as the Crapbutpromising Award and the Provincial Underdog's Consolation Award. The Booker, Kennedy says, “is a pile of crooked nonsense. I mistakenly thought it was not as deeply corrupt as it is.” This, she says, is not a result of undue influence from the big publishing conglomerates but rather a matter of the more informal power of “who knows who, who's sleeping with who, who's selling drugs to who, who's married to who, who's turn is it. I read the 300 novels and no other bastard [on the panel] did.” Though she now believes that most literary prizes have a debased currency, she has once again agreed to sit on a panel, but this time for a prize for new writers sponsored by Britain's Guardian newspaper, for which she is a columnist.
Still fighting the demons that stopped her writing in 1998, and still battling an upper back problem (the twin presences in her nonfiction work On Bullfighting), Kennedy is presently writing short stories. For her the emotional commitment needed for fiction writing is difficult to summon up now. She says, “You have to come to a place where you're completely emotionally vulnerable and you have to create a space in which it's safe to do it again. But now I can only do it for the length of a short story. I would love to enjoy what I feel most alive doing again. I worry that I won't ever enjoy it again. It's probably not possible for me to not do it because it becomes psychologically necessary.” Her tentativeness about starting another novel is understandable when Alison explains the dangers as she sees them. She says, “If you are welding you have to remember to have a face mask. The occupational hazard of my job is that it alters my psychology and can damage my character. We [writers] are fantastically hungry people because the emotional intensity when we're writing is like being in the middle of the beginning of an affair all the time.”
Kennedy doesn't have a writing day, she has a writing night: she works between the hours of 10 p.m. and three a.m., though this could stretch to five a.m. It's a habit she formed early in her career. The value of these ungodly hours is that “this is the time of night when you would naturally dream. The time when you would usually be asleep is the time that you don't at all self-censor.” Feeling jet-lagged all the time is seemingly worth it because “if you've really tied one on the night before and have just written a big chunk you wake up and feel really exhausted and rattled and abused and you think God, yes I did something last night.”
The late hours also fit with her views on inspiration and the writing process itself. In the course of writing So I Am Glad, she had a dream. In it, she saw a high, hot, blue sky bordered by billowing poplar leaves, viewed as if she were lying down. She says that the dream seemed odd and not her own. Later when she went to France to research the life of de Bergerac for her novel, she visited the site where the graveyard containing his grave used to be (now over-built) at Sannois and there looked up and saw the dream made real. This is the clearest illustration possible of her technique, which involves a kind of channeling, as well as an active process of creating or making. When it's put to her that this must seem like a particular gift she says, “Well the whole thing is a gift. There's this whole concept of the writer being in control but it's a daily process of picking up stuff that you're given by chance or that you're looking for because you're in a state of mind that makes it more visible. But after a while you're aware that you're sort of surfing and that most of what you're surfing on you're not providing. You just have to keep your balance.”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1227
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 had a wife he adored and a child he worshiped. Then his wife, Maura, decided their marriage that was over and that his unhealthy obsession with his writing meant he should never see his daughter, Mary, again.
Nathan has enough insight to understand that without the love that filled his heart, he has no hope of redemption as a human being, so he goes along with the curious compact that unites his island community, albeit with a degree of skepticism. The inhabitants believe they have a recipe for reaching a state of grace. The route involves each devising a series of high-risk physical challenges which, if they failed to survive, would appear to resemble either suicide or bizarre accident. Anyone who makes it through seven rounds of these variations on the principle of Russian roulette will somehow arrive at a kind of Nirvana.
The air of heightened reality induced by these episodes of literally dicing with death [in Everything You Need] seems characteristic of A. L. Kennedy's intent as a writer. From its very dawn, with novels such as James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner, serious Scottish fiction has always concerned itself with questions of morality and its relationship to everyday life. For Kennedy, that debate takes place in a paradoxical interior landscape that is simultaneously beyond reality and firmly rooted in the territory beneath the superficial skin of events.
Because Nathan cannot bring himself entirely to embrace the belief of his fellow islanders, he still searches for a more traditional form of redemption. There is a vacancy on the island, and he has engaged the complicity of his fellow writers in offering a seven-year fellowship to his daughter, now in her late teens and with literary aspirations of her own. Nathan will be her mentor.
Mary has no idea of their relationship. In the version of her life provided by her mother, her father died when she was 4. She has no memory of him, and it's been impossible for her to quiz her mother, since Maura abandoned her daughter to the care of her uncle and his homosexual lover years before, apparently because she felt she could no longer care properly for her. Mother and daughter have had no contact since the abandonment; as Oscar Wilde might have said, to be abandoned by one parent is unfortunate, to be abandoned by both looks remarkably like a literary device.
Already, Kennedy has stretched the suspension of disbelief almost beyond the breaking point. It's hard to believe that anyone Mary's age would commit to a seven-year writing apprenticeship on an isolated island, leaving behind her beloved uncles and the fledgling romantic relationship that has awakened her own sensual nature. It's hard to believe she's never seen her birth certificate, which must name Nathan as her father. It's hard to believe that any of the damaged and self-regarding personalities on Foal Island could ever write a word anyone would want to read. It's almost impossible to believe in Nathan's editor, J. D. Grace, whose bizarre descent through spirals of drinking and sexual perversity to utter degradation provides a barely recognizable picture of London literary life.
Nevertheless, Kennedy weaves a potent verbal spell that makes these quibbles seem irrelevant. In this sprawling narrative, covering Mary's seven years as the sorcerer's apprentice, we are drawn inexorably forward, eager to see where we will be taken. It is clear that Kennedy understands the mechanics of the heart. Everything You Need depicts relationships of astonishing tenderness as well as those of breathtaking viciousness. In one of her precise and painfully scrupulous images, one couple is described as going together “like a chest infection and phlegm.”
Nathan's own stumbling journey often seems to consist of two steps forward and three back. Nevertheless, he makes gradual progress toward recovering both his essential humanity and his lost literary ideals. After years of writing genre fiction by the numbers, he finally begins to struggle toward the composition of a literary novel, and sharing in this endeavor brings the reader to compassion. In spite of Nathan's often infuriating behavior, Kennedy manages to make us care about his fate and wish him well.
In parallel to her exploration of the price we pay for love and the occasionally ambiguous rewards it brings runs a similar examination of what it is to be a writer. With searing honesty and a liberal larding of blackly comic set pieces, Kennedy dissects her own professional world. Literary prizes are satirized with titles like “Themiddleclasswankers Thankyoufortrying Award” (sponsored by Gubbins and Muggins Electric Shock Batons Inc.). But there are more serious points made here about the commodification of authors and the cult of personality. She is acidic about the corrosive nature of much contemporary publishing, in which commercial pressures are paramount and the natural development of writers is sacrificed for short-term gain.
What also shines through is how clearly she understands the impossibility of escaping the vocation of words. At one point, Nathan explains it thus to Mary: “Sometimes, at the heart of me, there won't fall a word, there will be nothing but the wait. But then it comes, it speaks, it's there for me and I am there for it. We give ourselves to each other, we each possess the other, we agree. And after that, nothing can stop us. Not even me.”
At the heart of this book is the suspense that hangs over the secret relationship between Nathan and Mary. Everyone else on the island knows they are father and daughter. Both have parallel reunions with Maura, neither of which resolves the outstanding issues between them. We are constantly poised, holding our breath and waiting for the revelation that will provoke some cathartic and possibly cataclysmic event. And it never comes.
It's difficult to understand why Kennedy opts for an ending that looks disturbingly like a failure of narrative nerve. She is clearly not afraid to write about the darkest recesses of human relationships, which makes this frustrating conclusion all the stranger. If her intention was to suggest that there can be no neat resolution in the affairs of men, there are other narrative strategies she could have chosen. But to leave so central an event to the reader's imagination feels like a cop-out. Of course a writer wants her readers to carry the characters beyond the pages, to picture their lives continuing in the light of what they have been through. Yet to build so strongly toward a climactic moment and then to abandon it seems inexplicable.
Nevertheless, flawed as it is, Everything You Need stakes its claim as another distinctive monument in the landscape of contemporary Scottish writing. Truthful, surprising and visceral, it provokes the sort of response that reminds us what fiction is for.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 546
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 deserted him twelve years earlier, taking along their four-year-old daughter Mary and never to be heard from again. The lost wife and daughter are the object of Nathan's obsessions, and their loss his reason for chronic suicidality.
Unable to successfully hang himself despite elaborate efforts, Nathan reluctantly remains alive, and soon finds a reason to live. The writers “fellowship” on the island somehow lines up an internship for his long-lost daughter, now sixteen years old and herself an aspiring writer. Mary has no idea that Nathan Staples is her father. She was told her father had died, and also has no contact with her mother, since Maura abandoned her shortly after deserting Nathan, turning her over to the custody of two charming gay uncles. Despite all this abandonment, Mary is a healthy and insightful young woman, a beacon of stability compared to her father. Blissfully ignorant of his identity, she settles in on the island and tries to write. Soon, Nathan's close friend begins sending Mary anonymous letters informing her that her father is not only alive, but also close by and soon to reveal himself to her. The tension created by this situation leads nowhere, however, and six years later Mary is still in the dark. As the years go by, life events transpire for both Mary and Nathan: the death of Mary's uncles and of Nathan's best friend, visits by both Nathan and Mary individually to Maura in London, and Mary's troublesome first love affair. Nathan mentors Mary, but never reveals the truth to her, preferring to remain in his vicious circle of deception and guilt, swept along by huge amounts of alcohol.
Mary, whose favorite adjective is wonderful, doesn't seem to be much of a writer, nor does Nathan, who is hard pressed to find an adjective not beginning with f (the tiresome overuse of profanity dents the book's readability). The plot, initially promising, stagnates as more and more years pass with no progress. Nonetheless, A. L. Kennedy wields a forceful pen. In syntactically sophisticated sentences that almost snap with emotional intensity, she weaves her characters' complex perceptions into riveting narration, commanding the reader's full attention.
Like her previous novel, Original Bliss, this one devotes its intense narrative focus to an eccentric, often patently dislikable protagonist in the throes of self-abasement. And there is no resolution—even with his daughter in the same room, Nathan is not released from his self-induced isolation and alienation. Ultimately, Kennedy's message is a larger one, about life—where often enough, once choices are made, there are no resolutions—and about the all-consuming narcissism of the artist, that is more likely to lead to pain than to truth.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 445
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 bad stomach ache.
Indelible Acts, a collection of 12 short stories, provides the perfect structure for Kennedy's strengths. Each bite-sized tale is about love in all its forms—maternal, filial, sexual and thwarted. Here she shows how to make a page sizzle with intensity: adjectives are shuffled—words become ‘hot’, injuries ‘sing’—conveying how love heightens all senses.
Donne-like conceits with their micro-macrocosm effect are widened out to whole analogies. A boy trying to escape the oppression of looking after his battered mother buries himself in the white, anonymous snowdrifts; inoculations at the doctor's are paralleled with, progressively, awkward sex, the death of a relationship and sexual freedom. Sometimes this echoing works, but it is the less condensed set-ups that work best. An infidelity that begins in a cheese shop, for example, is sweetly incongruous. It is not for the plot that you pick up a Kennedy book, but the language.
Some of the phrases here are so gorgeously acute, they make you want to grab the nearest person and force them to marvel with you: when a sledge careens down a hill, the ‘ground was snarling past’, when a woman looks out of the window at a storm, the glass ‘would shrug back into secrecy and show no more than her reflection’.
Kennedy has always been good at female desire. She is, though, better with the male characters, sketching them with a warmth lacking in her more hardened and scarred females. But that is really the only variety distinguishing the 12 narrators in the book's stories. All of them—from the abused boy to the bitter woman in a faithless marriage—speak in the same voice, notice the same social cadences, use the same vocabulary.
A. L. Kennedy has been called ‘a miniaturist, not a novelist’. Jane Austen may have worked on a little bit of ivory two inches wide, but Kennedy's canvas is even smaller. It is an admirable style, but a very claustrophobic one, leaving you longing for Kennedy to uncramp her more than capable pen and look beyond the two inches.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 335
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, amounts to little more than its unidentified narrator's reflections on a recently concluded love affair. “Touch Positive,” about a recently discarded husband losing himself in quotidian errands, and “Awaiting an Adverse Reaction,” in which a woman being inoculated before taking a foreign trip considers escape from her nondescript husband, seem equally thin. But the strength of the volume is Kennedy's command of several intriguingly varied voices, such as those heard in “An Immaculate Man,” which precisely records the emotional whirligig that engulfs a timid divorce attorney unhinged by what he takes to be a homosexual advance made by his married boss. In “Spared,” an unhappy husband finds both sexual gratification and apocalyptic terror in a hastily experienced adulterous dalliance. In the elaborately conceived “White House at Night,” a forensic expert investigating atrocities in an embattled Eastern European country is himself violated by stunned apprehension of his own romantic and sexual vulnerability. A boy too young and frail to defend his mother against his father's abuse fantasizes becoming her avenger (“A Bad Son”). And a janitor who moonlights as an amateur magician (in “A Little Like Light”) must settle for the appearance rather than the reality of happiness in a sexless “affair” that leads him to realize that “The best love is a little like light. … It is beautiful and terrible and blinding and you will never understand the trick of it.”
Uneven but often striking work from one of the UK's best younger writers.