Shena Mackay Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Shena Mackay 1944-

Scottish novelist, short-story and novella writer, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Mackay's career through 2003.

Mackay is recognized as a talented novelist and short fiction writer. Her work focuses on eccentric and complex individuals struggling with poverty, alienation, and despair. Critics praise her fiction for its dark and absurdist humor and its adroit use of detail.

Biographical Information

Mackay was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1944. When she was a young child, her family settled in Shoreham, Kent, England. Later the family moved to southeast London, where she grew up in an urbane, literary environment. Unhappy in school, she left when she was sixteen years old. Mackay was already interested in writing, and won a poetry prize right after she left school. She worked in an antique shop owned by the parents of art critic David Sylvester and managed by playwright Frank Marcus. Through her friendship with these two men, Mackay was introduced to the London art world of the 1960s; she became acquainted with such renowned artists as Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Henry Moore, and David Hockney. Many critics have noted the painterly qualities of Mackay's fiction. In 1964 a collection of two of her novellas, Dust Falls on Eugene Schlumburger and Toddler on the Run, was published. She was an immediate sensation in London literary and social circles. After her marriage in 1964, she published less frequently. In fact, after the publication of her novel An Advent Calendar in 1971, she did not publish another book until 1983. She did continue to write short stories during that period. In 1980 she became a friend to novelist Brigid Brophy, who helped her find a publisher for her book, A Bowl of Cherries (1984). Her 1995 novel, The Orchard on Fire, was on the shortlist for the prestigious Booker Prize. Mackay lives in south London, and remains a well-established literary figure in England.

Major Works

In Mackay's first novel, Music Upstairs (1965), she explores the bohemian life of 1960s London through the emotional and sexual relationship between a young English girl from the suburbs and her two landlords, Pam and Lenny. The Advent Calendar touches on such controversial topics as cannibalism, pedophilia, adultery, and animal cruelty. In A Bowl of Cherries, Mackay explores the issue of redemption through the relationship of twin brothers: Rex, a successful novelist, and Stanley, his poor and friendless brother. When it is revealed that Rex's literary success is a fraud—his popular novel was actually written by Stanley—a wealth of family secrets is exposed. Considered one of her best works, Redhill Rococo (1986) is an amusing story of the love affair between the ex-con Luke and the prostitute Pearl Slattery. Mackay's next novel, Dunedin (1992), chronicles the hard-luck lives of the Mackenzie family from 1902 New Zealand to 1989 London. The Orchard on Fire focuses on the intense friendship between two English girls, April and Ruby. Both are being abused; Ruby is physically beaten by her father, and April is being molested by an elderly man in the neighborhood. The novel ends with an embittered April, now much older, reflecting on the importance of her friendship with Ruby. Mackay's 1998 novel, The Artist's Widow, is set within the contemporary art scene in London. Her latest novel, Heligoland (2000), follows the lives of several aging artists living in a communal, utopian community. Critics praise the sharp and complex cast of characters in the book. In addition to her novels, Mackay has received favorable critical attention for her short stories. Collections such as Babies in Rhinestones and Other Stories (1983) and The World's Smallest Unicorn: Stories (1999) highlight what critics consider Mackay's satirical view of modern culture as well as her poignant and insightful perspective on human relationships.

Critical Reception

Mackay has been widely praised for her lovely prose style and her intelligent and evocative fiction. In particular, reviewers applaud her effective use of satire, dark humor, eroticism, and dialogue. Her powers of description are considered well developed, and many commentators have discussed the accurate and shrewd use of detail in her novels, novellas, and short stories. Critics contend that she creates compassionate and vivid portrayals of people living in desolation, isolation, and desperation. However, some reviewers have accused Mackay of failing to create likable characters, particularly male ones, and denigrate the bleak circumstances and plaintive tone of her work. Her combination of absurdist humor, pathos, and compassion has led some commentators to compare her work with that of Charles Dickens. Mackay is regarded as a distinctive and gifted voice in contemporary English literature.