SOURCE: Jordan, Clive. “Dislocations.” New Statesman and Society 82 (2 July 1971): 24.
[In the following excerpt, Jordan provides a favorable review of An Advent Calendar.]
An Advent Calendar provides a slight but raffishly entertaining excursion to the rundown territory Shena Mackay has staked out as her own. Here again, observed rather less cruelly than before, is the quagmire of a ghastly urban sub-culture. ‘Marguerite lay in bed thinking of the long road of days that led to a goat's dripping beard in East Finchley.’ However improbable, the logic of the road of days is remorseless. Here it brings an impoverished young family to spend the pre-Christmas period with a decrepit uncle, the goat's owner. The resultant complexities include the wife's affair with the goat's vet, and the seduction of a dreadful 15-year-old schoolgirl by a middle-aged poet. I particularly admire the way Shena Mackay makes it appear that both people and things have been formed from the same messy organic substance. The ‘wild white drowned hair of the spaghetti’ is not too fanciful when we already know that the meat sauce contains a human finger.
SOURCE: Barnes, Hugh. “Scenes from British Life.” London Review of Books 8, no. 2 (6 February 1986): 7.
[In the following excerpt, Barnes offers a mixed review of Redhill Rococo.]
Redhill Rococo experiments in a little-known genre: the ‘Condition of Surrey’ novel. The main feature of the style is the barrage of acronyms and initials facing the reader: DHSS, YTS, HMP, C of E, WPC, SDP; even UCCA plays a part and among vegetarians B12 gets an honourable mention. At PTA meetings mothers abbreviate each other blithely, into Mrs H-J or Mrs S; and trendy Christians daub their surroundings—a Ricky Nelson poster comes in for special punishment, a macabre touch—with the graffito ‘GOD RULES OK.’ You get from the novel what you don't expect: Pearl Slattery (Mrs S) strikes a radical blow against the State. Towards the end she turns up for work at Snashfold's Sweet Factory to find locked gates and sleeping machinery. It is suggested that the plant has shut down due to the recession: a nail-file in the butterscotch and a plaster in the Jelly Teddies can't have helped. Anxious about the upkeep of her family, about her son's unpunctuality on his Youth Training Scheme and about her daughter who has eloped with the Bible-punchers, Pearl opts to go out in a blaze of glory—or rather a shop steward takes that option for her. Her arrest for criminal damage to Snashfold's property equips her neighbours with an unfamiliar item of conversation—martyrdom to class struggle.
Mackay excels at a comedy of self-abasement, intermittently deprecating and cruel. But unhappily she has a propensity for overkill. Bad jokes sneak in and the insubstantial narrative indicates weakness. Pearl's lodger attempts to seduce her but in vain, despite a liberal sprinkling of love-potion (purchased from Redhill's obeah man) in her Horlicks. The Slattery children gesture at rebellion or disappoint, and a climax that involves Pearl escaping in a Range Rover seems relatively pointless. At other times Mackay shows herself to be susceptible to patches of purple prose concerning liberation. In this context such an idea, although she milks it for a laugh or two, appears whimsical and out of place.
SOURCE: Duchêne, Anne. “The Distant Sound of Breaking Glass.” Times Literary Supplement (14 February 1986): 163.
[In the following review, Duchêne commends the combination of humor and sadness she finds in Redhill Rococo.]
In Shena Mackay's new novel [Redhill Rococo ], the fuddled vicar, finding himself at a wedding reception, toasts “the horse and groom”; the local librarian gives...
(This entire section contains 1114 words.)
the over-seventies double fines for returning books late, as they should know better; the local paper reports “CO-OP RAIDED: NOTHING TAKEN”; a cookery book is called “Take aLeek”. … It all sounds rather like a script forThe Two Ronnies; and yet, like all Shena Mackay's novels, it is also painfully sad.
For twenty years now (dust-jacket photographs suggest she began publishing around the age of fifteen), Mackay has written with exuberant glee and compassionate horror about people living in suburban sorriness and desolation, gasping for what Forster called “a breathing-hole for the human spirit”; and she has always held both the exuberance and the compassion suspended in her writing, not allowing them to settle into any new composition that might commit her either to a purely, surrealistically funny novel, or to a distressingly sad and serious one. This formula does not make for a seamless novel, and confines her to a minor genre; but it furnishes a great deal to be enjoyed and admired along the way.
Redhill Rococo is set in her favourite stamping-ground, suburbia's Surrey outposts. Redhill is presented as “in essence a carpark, or a series of carparks strung together with links of smouldering rubble and ragwort, buddleia and willowherb” (the time is late summer), and many of the short sections into which the short chapters are divided stamp out its properties pretty harshly: “Saturday night in Redhill; from Busby's the distant sound of breaking glass, a short scream, a police siren. … Sunday morning: a pale pinkish-yellow plasmatic smell of half-cooked meat hung over the back gardens. In the Slatterys' kitchen their Sunday lunch, five tubs of pot noodles, steamed gently …”. Demolition and polystyrene prevail.
Just down the road, but in another socio-economic world, is genteel Reigate (where the author herself lives), with bijou cottages, kempt gardens, and “bedizened ladies discreetly buying gin” at Cullens, or putting on rubber gloves to fold their rotary dryers into plastic covers. The two worlds are to meet, because children attend the same schools. Chiefly, we see the Redhill mother, Pearl, a brave slattern and defeated romantic, who works in a local sweet-factory. As a girl, daughter of a level-crossing keeper whose wife defected, she attended Tonbridge Girls' Grammar School, where poverty constrained her to wear wellingtons throughout the school year and all its activities. Now, she wishes life could be “more like The Bells of St Mary's, where Bing Crosby tucked Barry Fitzgerald up in bed, crooning an Irish Iullaby”. The Samaritans hung up on her when she confessed to eating fried bread while they talked; the local library's information officer, when she telephoned to ask the Meaning of Life, promised to call back, but never did.
Pearl's present husband, Jack Slattery, is in prison. She does not visit, but sends one postcard. They aren't actually married, but she and their children carry his name—Sean, a punk with a heavy line in irony, Cherry, taking A-levels, and Tiffany, a pre-pubertal drum-majorette. Sometimes she is visited by the child of her first marriage, a brown young man called Elvis, his black wife, a nurse, called Precious, and their two small black daughters. Now and then, with dignified repugnance, Pearl sleeps, for financial reasons, with the local publican, whose tongue is “like a slug in her ear”.
The Reigate mother, Helen Headley-Jones, drives a Range Rover, distributes Meals on Wheels, wears a Guardian jogging-suit, and makes pastry on a marble slab; also “toilet rolls in the shape of crinoline ladies in delicate shades of green and mauve and yellow foam rubber” for SDP sales. “Helen tried hard to be good.” The lack of satisfaction this achieves bewilders her, and also her husband, who recommends she find herself a new dog. (Jeremy's birthday dinner—Helen has given him “personalized golf-tees”—with their daughters in an Indian restaurant is a beautifully modulated Reigate set-piece.)
Into the Slattery household, as a lodger, stumbles Luke, aged seventeen, after Borstal. A nice boy, he over-reacted to the “ante-chamber of Death” in the local sub-post-office where pensions were being loquaciously claimed, and feigned a hold-up with a toy pistol off the shelves: one of his many jokes that miscarry. He doesn't want to return to his home in nearby Purley because his mother (“hadn't she been nice to him once?”) now lives in the bath, sleeping at night on piles of towels, and his father, the Rev Ichabod Ribbons, has taken to the cooking sherry after being evicted from his church by the evangelical curate and the “waves of ecumenical laughter” engendered during services. (“There was a lot of kissing after Communion, and what the Vicar found hardest to bear was that they all looked so damned happy.”)
Various things happen. Luke falls in thoroughly unrequited love with Pearl. The sweet-factory closes. The curate falls in love with Cherry. None of this matters much Plot, as usual with this author, is pretty perfunctory: detail is all, and the seeping desolation it communicates, along with the cheerfulness. Most of the characters are imprisoned in a kind of atomic isolation, only now and then bumping into one another. They breach this isolation, fitfully; Pearl and Cherry, for instance, have an “old easy love”, almost forgotten under the detritus of life, and at the end Pearl and Helen draw together in their common perplexity. The author turns a gentle eye on them; and her very gentlest on youth, the only straggly seedling of hope which she allows. Luke is as yet undefeated, and still believes his own wit and charm are irresistible; Cherry still hopes to go to university.
One cannot feel much hope, though, that their goodness will not be soiled and wasted, with time, like that of their elders. This is a very black comedy, in which the hearts of gold glint like mica. The brightness it does give off, and which suffuses it as one reads, comes from the author's endearing inability to resist a joke or to refrain from going too far, so that her frightening view topples over into preposterousness—Pearl's wellies, Helen's toilet-roll covers, Luke's mother in the bath. One might doubtless take Mackay to task for writing a book in which the impurities rise so exuberantly to the surface. But, if England has to sink giggling into the sea, she contributes a great deal to the cruel comedy of decomposition.
SOURCE: Mars-Jones, Adam. “Running through the Recipes.” Times Literary Supplement (21 August 1987): 897.
[In the following review, Mars-Jones offers a mixed assessment of the stories in Dreams of Dead Women's Handbags, asserting that Mackay's “faults are intermittent, her virtues—her eye, her inventiveness—constant.”]
Moving as it does from the sombre to the absurdly trivial without becoming unambiguously comic, the splendid title of Shena Mackay's new collection [Dreams of Dead Women's Handbags] well represents the tonal range of the book. Sometimes she invokes the simplicities of melodrama or pathos, sometimes she transforms them at the last moment into some more sophisticated compound.
The title story is unusual in falling off from the eerie confidence of its opening: “It was a black evening bag sequined with salt. … This image, the wreckage of a dream beached on the morning, would not float away; as empty as an open shell, the black bivalve emitted a silent howl of despair; clouds passed through its mirror.” In the story, the dreamer—a writer of mystery novels—imagines the dream to be a fiction-germ stirring, and waits for it to root itself in a plot or a cast of characters. Mackay's parallel attempt to derive a story from the dream produces some fine passages of surrealistic unease, as the mystery writer encounters minor madness and coincidence on her way by train to a reading of her work, but lapses into an almost wilful baldness when the dream turns out to be a memory of the writer's innocent killing of her parents as a child—not the sort of thing that even the most professionally productive unconscious could mistake for the first glimmerings of Detective Inspector Hartshorn's next case.
The short story is in many ways an unforgiving form, which calls like any tricky recipe for careful regulation of temperature and timing. But a story can also be a salvageable souffle, whose sagging texture can be restored by a gust of invention even on the way to the table. An example is the story “Violets and Strawberries in the Snow”, an account of an alcoholic ex-writer spending Christmas in a mental hospital, which is almost pure cliché throughout. The writer is visited by his three daughters, who put a brave face on things until one of them inadvertently sums up the situation with the words, “Satsumas are horrible this year.” After their visit the writer sits down to write a story with that title: “It would not be very good, he knew, but at least it would come from that pulpy, sodden satsuma that was all that remained of his heart.” This is Mackay at her most over-explicit, her least respectful of the balance that is struck in any story between the said and the unsaid.
But the story is saved by her manipulation of her own more oblique title phrase, first when the daughters enter: “they came in, smelling of fresh air and rain, with unseasonal daffodils and chocolates, like children, he thought, in a fairytale, sent by their cruel stepmother up the mountainside to find violets and strawberries in the snow”. There is a piercing poignancy in the way the character sees his children's visit more easily in terms of the fulfilment of a bizarre quest than as a natural expression of feelings.
Then, after they have left, the phrase recurs with its terms reversed, as the character sees in memory “his children smiling and waving at the door, their resolute backs as they walked to the car concealing their wounds under their coats, forgiving and brave, and carrying his own weak and dissolute genes in their young and beautiful bodies. Violets and strawberries in the snow.”
Most of these stories are brief, little more than ten pages. “All the Pubs in Soho” is by some way the longest and the most substantial. It tells the story of summer 1965 as it affects eight-year-old Joe, bullied and ignored at home, who finds something like friendship with Arthur and Guido, a couple who move into a cottage in the village. There is nothing about a child's point of view likely to defeat a writer of Shena Mackay's quality, but she seems reluctant in general to commit herself—either to fully inhabiting a character's point of view or to maintaining a fixed distance from it—in a way that hampers this particular story. The first paragraph, for instance, describes with an adult's aesthetic scrupulousness (flowers resembling “blue and copper velvety kitten's faces freaked with black”) Joe's misinterpretation of the words “those bloody pansies”, which refer in fact to Arthur and Guido. Since Joe's age has yet to be revealed, the effect is curiously irrelevant and confusing.
There is more to be revealed about Joe than age. Joe is actually Josephine, but refers to herself—and is referred to by the narrative voice—as a boy. Arthur and Guido guess this secret before the reader is likely to do so. Joe's resentment of her gender and the limitations it imposes is focused on her academic future, since the school her parents have chosen for her has a uniform which will prevent her from equivocating. She will be fatally a tomboy in a skirt.
The story builds to a climax as the school term approaches, and as Arthur and Guido's stay in the village comes to an abrupt end. But along the way Shena Mackay produces some of her few clumsy sentences:
The child from a house where a veneer of anxiety lay on every surface like dust, where at any moment a bark might rip up comics and scatter toys, where a fist thumping the table might make cups leap in fear vomiting their contents on to the tablecloth, just as Joe had once been sick when his father caught the side of his head with his knuckles and where Mummy's forehead wrinkled like the skin on cocoa and her chin puckered in fear and placation, expected every domestic disclosure between two adults to degenerate into a battle in which by being co-opted to one side, he was considered the enemy by the other, and so always ended as the loser whoever else was in power when a truce was called.
Even this disastrously rambling sentence is not a ruin but a ramshackle, uninhabitable mansion that could easily be subdivided into a number of splendid flats. Shena Mackay's faults are intermittent, her virtues—her eye, her inventiveness—constant. They give a reliable pleasure.
SOURCE: Maitland, Sara. “Pain Killer.” New Statesman 114, no. 2944 (28 August 1987): 21-2.
[In the following review, Maitland derides the plaintive tone and psychological density of the stories in Dreams of Dead Women's Handbags.]
Shena Mackay has an uncomfortably accurate and shrewd eye for the details of bourgeois life, and an appropriately shrewd and elegant style to tell us what she has seen. This is a combination that suits the satirist well and in Redhill Rococo, her last novel, she showed how well she could handle satire: hilarity without loss of compassion is a rare and lovely thing.
But it works less well in this collection of stories—because here Mackay is not, I think, trying to be funny, though too many sentences do stretch longingly towards a snappy, witty conclusion. Real pain and madness lurk within almost all these stories: the pain and madness of loneliness, isolation and failure. And there is something almost plaintive in the tone—as though the stories themselves, or at least the characters in them, know and fear that they may be laughed at and feel they don't deserve it. Are we expected to laugh at poor Miss Agnew, doomed, by the death of her woman lover, to live out her life despised, along with an odd group of other social exiles, on an upper story of a seaside hotel in ‘Where the Carpet Ends’? Or at the agony of a writer's loss of faith in her own talent in ‘The Thirty First of October’? Or at the fierce intensity and pyromanic despair of poor little Joe, misunderstood child, who finds herself a frail friendship with two artistic homosexuals in ‘All the Pubs in Soho’ (my favourite of this collection)?
Mackay compounds her problems of tone by taking a very firm hand and insisting, too much, on a rigorous social realism. Many of the stories—the title one, for example, or ‘The Most Beautiful Dress in the World’, in which the conflict between maternal love and creative self-fulfilment leads to the disintegration of the protagonist—end up by ‘explaining’ too much. As in the gothic novels of the early 19th century, everything has to have a clear and literal explanation; dream and imagination are clearly separated from the ‘real world’ and their own reality is thus denied, along with the imaginative capacity of the reader. I actually do not need to know whether the mayhem committed by the mother in ‘The Most Beautiful Dress’ really happened, and I certainly do not want to have my experience of her panic distanced by the unnecessary and clumsy intrusion of the police force.
Since, for most of Mackay's characters, imaginary life is central, crucial to their experience, it is almost mean of her to drag them continually back into social realism. Even in the most supernatural of the stories, such as ‘Perpetual Spinach’, where the insensitivity of some gentrifying yuppies towards their aged neighbours is appropriately punished, the ending is laboured lest the reader miss the point. The characters, the readers and the potency of the imagination itself: all deserve more respect.
So, despite the accuracy and the delicious prose, this collection left me uneasy: not only in the way that it is obviously meant to (have I looked hard enough at the lives of ‘ordinary people’? am I aware of the lurking depths, the strange kinks, the tangled pasts of these superficially dull folk?) but also in a more literary sense.
Can the structure of the traditional short story (which is what these predominantly are) with its lavish piling on of the social detail, with its deft ending which both explains and skews what has gone before, actually carry the emotional weight, the imaginative, psychological density that it is being asked to here? And the answer, here at least, is ‘not quite’.
SOURCE: Craig, Patricia. “Getting On.” London Review of Books 9, no. 16 (17 September 1987): 18.
[In the following excerpt, Craig offers a mixed review of the stories included in Dreams of Dead Women's Handbags.]
The women characters of Shena Mackay [in Dreams of Dead Women's Handbags] are apt to get into an overwrought state: domestic annoyances and shortcomings conspire to agitate them until they lash out with the nearest weapon to hand—in one instance, a vegetable marrow. The unsatisfactoriness of life is something they all know well and resent. One spends her days in an out-of-season hotel full of society's rejects; another regrets her dwindled celebrity as a writer, and acts in a way to cause retrospective embarrassment to herself at a literary party. The heroine of the title story, also a writer (of detective fiction), has a difficult time on a train, where her overnight bag keeps getting mixed up with the bag of a woman in a synthetic fur coat who orders her gin and tonic by the double. We learn a little about the writer's past, and the accident that befell her parents on a clifftop. Did she cause it, or was the whole thing a dream? In any case, there remains the theatrical image of a handbag falling after its owner down the side of a cliff. ‘The black bivalve emitted a silent howl of despair.’ Shena Mackay needs to tone down her trimmings. At one point, we find a pier striding on shivery legs into a sea of gun-metal silk edged with flounces of creamy lace. Nevertheless, Dead Women's Handbags contains some gems, including two stories about children, ‘Cardboard City’ and ‘All the Pubs in Soho’. In the first, two stepdaughters of a despised stepfather, 12 and 14, wangle a day in London on their own; in ‘Soho’, a girl who would rather be a boy attaches herself to an ostracised twosome (a pair of bloody pansies, say the locals) in a Kentish village. ‘Perpetual Spinach’ has a workers' row of houses, an up-and-coming couple, and their edgy relations with two of the workers next door; when the latter are killed in a road accident, there's a comic implication that the couple's cats have taken over their role. Shena Mackay is a sharp and often funny observer of the deficiencies in ordinary lives.
SOURCE: Huth, Angela. “Accents Yet Unknown.” Spectator 269, no. 8556 (4 July 1992): 30-1.
[In the following review, Huth lauds Mackay's eye for detail in Dunedin, but faults the unevenness of the novel.]
It is a puzzling fact in the literary world that while some writers' names lodge in the public mind from the start, others, for all their eligibility, remain for years—sometimes for ever—‘vaguely heard of’ rather than a public name.
One of those upon whom the unfairness of fashion has rendered this disservice is Shena Mackay, first published 28 years ago. Her last collection of stories, Dreams of Dead Women's Handbags, received particular critical acclaim. But, singular writer though she is, Mackay does not yet share the popularity of O'Brien, Brookner or Bainbridge, and it's hard to know why.
Dunedin is her seventh novel. The story begins in 1909, in New Zealand. Presbyterian minister Jack Mackenzie, with his wife and family, arrive from Scotland to start a new life. In Jack's case, this does not mean giving up old ways. He was ‘at his nicest when being botanical’. When it came to women, he continued in his customary churlish ways.
Mackay's evocation of small community life in New Zealand almost a century ago is masterful. Here we find Miss Kettle, spinster of the parish, whose days ‘spread out around her like the repeated pattern of a dingy patchwork,’ and who harbours a secret passion for the minister. He in turn lusts after Myrtille, ‘the dark skinned launderess,’ who keeps the head of her great-grandfather on a shelf. Beneath the domestic exteriors, misery and deceit rumble menacingly in all quarters.
It is not just that Mackay has that cliché, a woman's eye for detail (which she has), but that her delight in detail is infectious. No moment is too small to burnish; no texture is too humble to bring to life. She makes the most ordinary things sparkle, describes with extraordinary vibrance objects and moments that are familiar to us all.
Many years later, Kitty would come across this book in a drawer lined with brittle paper of bleached and breaking roses exuding a distillation of summers locked in wood, and would weep at the schoolgirlish hand in which the sheets, pillowcases, towels … were listed so importantly and painstakingly in ink which had rusted to the colour of old thin blood.
Mackay also has a piquant sense of humour. Louisa, the parrot-shooting minister's wife,
… started to hum: flocks of parrots might well explode in shuttlecocks of brilliant bloody green feathers if that would take her husband away from Dunedin for a day or two. He could make the feathers into a headdress for all she cared, and perform a grotesque stamping war dance and protrude his tongue … a feathered spear impaling his chest. ‘May God forgive me, I didn't mean it,’ Louisa muttered as she realised she had just committed murder in her heart.
In the general charge of her exuberance, Mackay is prepared to take risks.
Lilian had a singing voice that reminded Madge of rowan jelly when you held the jar up to the light.
Had the words of this sentence been one millimetre out, it could have been material for Pseuds Corner. As it is, you know exactly what she means.
Unfortunately, on p. 52, New Zealand ends, but for a few pages of epilogue. We are then whirled forward 80 years to London, and the bleak lives of the Mackenzie grandchildren. The misfortune for the reader is not that Mackay's writing in any way declines, but the antipodean episode is so bewitching that it is hard not to feel some reluctance to being transported to the more familiar shores of grotty London. If anyone can bring humour and sparkle to delapidated houses, the agony in the mind of a baby-snatcher and the horrifying fate of a homeless young New Zealander, Mackay it is. We are in turn sympathetic, intrigued, shocked, entertained—but oh the yearning for the world she magically conjured in the first part. Would she had mixed her proportions of time and place differently. But perhaps she was unaware of how good her beginning is, and had no notion of what an ache for more she would cause in her reader.
As it is, her depiction of different kinds of misery in different generations of the same family manages not to be depressing. There is a kind of persistence of spirit among her characters, which is not a bad substitute for hope.
SOURCE: King, Chris Savage. “Urban Jungle.” New Statesman and Society 5, no. 210 (10 July 1992): 34.
[In the following review, King draws comparisons between Dunedin and the work of Charles Dickens.]
When the dust has settled on the millennium and readers want to find out how people lived in our age, they will discover all they need to know in the work of Shena Mackay. In Dunedin, the Mackenzies, a Scottish Presbyterian family who landed in New Zealand in 1909, are tracked down to their dispersed scions in the chaotic mess of 1980s South London. The suspended, ominous drift of middle-class Edwardian life is harshly contrasted with the more precarious present: a world of dishevelled corner shops, cackling street life, battered parks and end-of-the-line public services. General pathology is stoked until it explodes in random and irrevocable acts.
Olive, a shopkeeper with a heart full to bursting, snatches a black baby in an indifferent tube crowd. Her brother William, a headmaster, retires early when one of his pupils, Pragna Patel, is murdered by an ambling psychotic on a school trip. Meanwhile, Jay—the product of an illicit liaison between the Reverend Mackenzie and a Maori woman—arrives in London and lands at Crystal Palace, to end up in a private enterprise prison.
Despite being politically on the side of the angels, Shena Mackay's aim is as comic as it is bleak. In highly distinctive dialogue, she captures genteel convolutions disguising viciousness, and a masquerade of wisdom in jargon and cliché. Her characters, both irascible and resigned, have a natural antagonism and suspicion towards one another. This is relieved by sheer exhaustion as much as by goodwill.
Yet she carries an easy empathy with a range of defeated underdogs and gritty survivors, and a redemptive sensuous attention to the natural or debased objects that surround them. In her hands, dead cars shielded by blossoms, a discarded crisp wrapper in a front garden, Jay's fantasies of non-existent matey employers, and a Clapham restaurant meal shared by two middle-aged people about to fall in love, have a vividness and immediacy that elevate local incidents and the unexceptional people who experience them to an intense expressiveness and beauty. Her perspective on the usually unrecorded delights in the rush and snarl of the city make it seem at times as if she is forging a unique urban pastoral.
Enjoyable, shaggy-dog plotting and a sprawling cast make Dunedin as rumbustious and socially engaged as Dickens. With him she shares hot splashes of satire and an eye for idiosyncrasy, but is probably more faithful to her source material.
The realist school to which she notionally belongs is shallow in its most trumpeted offerings. Semi-public figures who write about semi-public figures deliver all the insight of a lengthy press release. Mackay's talent is more similar to friendlier forms: the songs of Ray Davies and Morrissey, the plays of Alan Bennett and Joe Orton, and Victoria Wood's sketches.
Like them, she writes about the extraordinariness of ordinary lives: the stuff that launched the novel in the 18th century, when it became the guiding light of secular humanism and displaced a dried-out aristocratic taste for metaphysics and archetypes. Ever since, hard men have been getting in on the act, and have stuffed novels with all manner of importance-seeking material. The literary “artist” of our age, assuming obsolete Romantic rights, produces works almost wholly vacated of active, contemporary life. This, in turn, has produced an understandable and blameless public who don't read “literary” novels.
Shena Mackay puts these efforts in the shade. She reveals the intellectual ambition of the boy, and female wannabe-boy, novelists for what it is: self-absorption, empty technique and, worst of all, imaginative deficiency. Still, never mind: the British novel thrives! Read Shena Mackay—the best writer we've got.
SOURCE: Sage, Lorna. “A Light Touch with the Horrors.” Times Literary Supplement (10 July 1992): 21.
[In the following review, Sage describes Dunedin as “exuberant, cruel, depressed and hilarious by turns—a manic-depressive book, all ups and downs.”]
The street-theatre of “community care” and the brand-new towering monuments to recession have inspired some interesting London novels, from Michael Moorcock's carnivalesque Mother London to Penelope Lively's brittle, see-through City of the Mind—but none has quite the high-spirited style of Dunedin. Shena Mackay writes about South East London with such penetrating familiarity and ingenuity that it becomes the focus for a whole world of dreams and disasters and guilty histories. And it is done with a special lightness of touch that lets you levitate out of the horrors, without in the least obscuring them. Here, for instance, is bad-tempered, menopausal and witty Olive Mackenzie, simply getting from A to B, sometime in 1989.
She drove past buildings faded like old music-hall queens, raddled, with dust in the folds of their skirts and broken fans, past people hitting their children while waiting for buses that would never come. Rain hit the windscreen, and at once it, and the road, were full of what they used to call dancing dollies; silver spirals pirouetting on glass and tarmac.
This kind of openly artful—but none the less easy-going—writing, which doesn't feel embarrassed about similes, and pounces on any chance association that promises pleasure, marks out Mackay as a traditionalist. She reminds one just enough of Dickens, and (at different time) of Iris Murdoch and Angus Wilson, to call up a rich receding background of fictions of society, leading up to her own.
Indeed, a severed head broods symbolically over the action—a Maori shrunken head in a biscuit tin under the floorboards of a derelict mansion called “Dunedin”, both house-name and head commemorating a shaming and abortive colonial excursion by the Mackenzie family, when grandfather Jack, the preacher, took them all the way to New Zealand, only to be sent back for blotting his copybook with the part-Maori laundress, Myrtille. The novel's first and last sections are set back in that brief antipodean idyll, and act as a sunlit and ironical frame for the lives of the present generation. Jack Mackenzie's grandchildren, official and unofficial.
Once upon a time, the British went out into the world with outrageous colonizing confidence; now, the wide world washes up here, like flotsam and jetsam: we're back “home”. The Mackenzies, as it were, anticipated this receding, homecoming tide of ex-empire by being chucked back in, eighty years ago. Divorced Olive and her brother William—an ex-headmaster disgraced when one of his pupils was killed on a school trip—look set to be “the last rotting fruit on their branch of the family tree”.
But, true to the tradition she's working in, which generates elaborate and endlessly proliferating plots. Mackay produces one surprise after another; a baby out of a hat here, a lost young life there. … Decay is after all a form of life, and what look like the last days of London from one horrific angle are the first days of new sorts of life from another. Not that things “balance out”, at all. Under cover of curiosity and humour, she is a relentless moralist, and juxtaposes moments of euphoria with black hopelessness and violence, just to make the point that there is no common denominator—no way of sharing out either happiness or suffering. Dickens, defending the melodrama of Oliver Twist against supposed-realists, said that actually city life was like streaky bacon, and Mackay, I am sure, would agree. Her characters are at once ordinarily plausible and on the margins of nightmare, and she demonstrates brilliantly how little divides daily looniness from the kind of thing you read about in the newspapers (both Olive and William get into the papers in the course of the story). Then again, there are the things too terrible to be in the papers, yet.
Perhaps the most obvious sign of the novel's slyness and ambition is its excursion into dystopian “fantasy”, in the form of a secret concentration camp for vagrants, run by the Department of the Environment. Can we be sure? you're meant to ask yourself. Also, this strand of subplot is a reminder that for all its connections with past novels. Dunedin is not at all comforting. Instead, it is exuberant, cruel, depressed and hilarious by turns—a manic-depressive book, all ups and downs.
There is space in this formula for a lot of supposedly “minor characters”, including a couple of very nasty pen-portraits of the kind of writer Shena Mackay isn't; Terry Turner and Derek Mothersole, who vie with each other in trendiness, coolly pornographic when it suits, “caring” when that's in vogue, but never able to lose themselves in London, as this book can. It's a small but sufficiently savage authorial gesture on behalf of openness, which should not be mistaken for ease or cosiness. You need, in fact, to be on the edge of hysteria to cope with what she calls—in a nice portmanteau pun—these last days of “empirical follies”.
SOURCE: Clapp, Susannah. “Bully Off.” London Review of Books 21, no. 5 (5 November 1992): 28-9.
[In the following favorable review of Dunedin, Clapp elucidates the defining characteristics of Mackay's fiction.]
Shena Mackay has written the first anti-speciesist novel. Dunedin does not feature animals in any large anthropomorphic or allegorical capacity, and there is hardly a pet in sight. But what happens at the edges of Mackay's novels, what is taken for granted, has always been vital in establishing their distinctive flavour and their point. Dunedin is about London, poverty and pinched lives, but the background imagery is consistently, though often quietly animal. This imagery helps to make Dunedin as original as any of Mackay's earlier books. It was one of the few things not praised in the unexpected eulogy bestowed upon Mackay by the pit-bull of the literary pages Julie Burchill when, in Elle magazine, she dismissed other contemporary women authors as ‘a mannered, marginal bunch of second bananas’, and went on to proclaim Mackay as ‘the best writer in the world today’.
Plot has never been a central attraction in Mackay's fiction: she introduces topics, strands of subject-matter and characters, and lets them unravel, sometimes intertwine, often fade away and frequently get dumped. There is as much meander as development—appropriately, for she writes about dreamers and ditherers. She is a writer of moments, of sharp touches, who has found as many fervent advocates for her short stories as for her novels.
Dunedin is more conventional in subject-matter and structure than most of her books. The novel's opening is strikingly—for Mackay, weirdly—traditional, seeming to promise a historical costume drama, in which a Scots minister and his family, arriving at the New Zealand port of Dunedin in 1909, find a mixing of traditions: there is shortbread and pursed lips and the tawse; there are also preserved human heads. Mackay makes less than she could of the distinctive cultural blend of the place: New Zealand émigrés report that the gold-rush town of Dunedin (founded by Scottish Presbyterians in the 1840s) was almost entirely determined by the idea of re-creating Edinburgh. It sports a George Street, a Hanover Street and an Albany Street, as well as a Castle Street (without the castle) and a Princes Street (with no prince); even in the 1960s, the statue of Robert Burns in the middle of the main street was surrounded by Highland dancers every Friday night. The Scottishness of Mackay's Dunedin is more a matter of moral style than of civic life, and her New Zealand a place of lush temptations and hazards—of bubbling geysers, sweet-briared verandas and black thighs. It is a place where a family's lives are narrowed by an oppressive father—while the father's own fantasy and fancy wander. It is also a place where the family's maid-servants, though preyed upon by their master, are in the end allowed their free range of fun:
‘I keep seeing his terrible face, staring at us. Like God and Adam and Eve.’
Madge came over to Lilian's bed. ‘Is it wrong? Does it feel wrong when I take you in my arms?’
Mackay's books have often been, as here, quite casually bisexual. In 1965 Music Upstairs provided an account of a young woman's drift through London—half-drunk, mostly miserable, half-tranced—to which the heroine's love affairs with her landlady and landlord are retailed with a wonderfully off-hand assurance. Mackay was 18 when she wrote Music Upstairs—a book whose title suggests the in-the-wings and off-the-wall nature of the heroine's life, and which gains from its suggestion of the Thirties use of ‘musical’ for homosexual. She was a prodigy who, a year before, had produced another account of two wastrels or escapers. Dust Falls on Eugene Schlumburger stars an ancient-seeming 30-year-old man and a schoolgirl only a year or so younger than the author who created her, who run off together (her headmistress informs the girl that her Uncle Eugene has just phoned the school with a request that she go to her mother's sickbed), crash a stolen car and become severally imprisoned and a secretary.
Some pages early on in Eugene Schlumburger set the tone of the novella and are a gauge of Mackay's particular mix of talents. It is assembly-time at the heroine's school: ‘schoolgirls in collars and ties singing of sailors in the hard electric glare of the depth of winter’; the heroine is listening to prayers for the county councils and thinking of an encounter behind the Portsmouth Odeon. And it is snowing:
Abigail thought: snow is filling the hockey nets and glittering on the yellow mud, freezing the drive and filling the hedges. Mounting in desolation on the windowsills, wailing at the pane, drifting under doors. Soon it will cover the desks and the algebra books, fill the crucible and the belljar and thoroughly obliterate the blackboard. Blue glaciers will form in the inkwells. Perhaps Benthall's car will skid on the drive and hurtle in frozen flames through the hollyhedge. Supposing they all broke their legs on the hockey pitch. ‘Bully off!’ and they charged, and their legs broke like hockeysticks, their faces like netballs sank into the snow.
If you don't like this, or the way a lyrical passage is then slapped up against a piece of satire—‘In addition to this bestiality,’ complains the headmistress about a recent misdemeanour, ‘not one of these girls was wearing her beret’—you won't like any of Mackay's work. Her preoccupations and style haven't changed much in the course of a thirty-year writing career. She still makes a lot of jokes. Her protagonists are still semi-detached from society. She still takes off in fantastic flights of visual imagery.
Dunedin profits from these characteristics, though it is not her best novel. It is bigger than her previous books—there are more pages, more characters, more countries, more overt themes—and its bigness exposes a tendency to inconsequentiality which can seem a triumph of coolness but can seem merely careless. The New Zealand scenes which begin and end the novel are barely tethered to the central London chapters, One of the characters who could integrate the different parts of the novel—a young vagrant from New Zealand who is related to more people in London than he suspects—is sketchily presented. A series of scenes involving him describes a dystopia in which dissident members of the population are rounded up, imprisoned, patrolled by thugs and beaten up: both the baddies (E-type-owning adulterers who get their opponents bumped off) and the goodies (kind-eyed intuitives with sweet-smelling babies) are spectral.
These unsatisfactory parts stick out: they read as if they have been implanted to make Dunedin an evidently ambitious book. But they don't damage the fabric of the novel. Mackay's real ambitiousness has little to do with making overt moral or political statements. It has everything to do with seeing and expressing things in a completely individual way. Apparently effortlessly. Throughout her work painterly touches pop up. She looks at the closed eyes of a baby and sees that they are ‘like the seams along broad beans’. She gives a picture of a marriage that is worthy of Francis Bacon: ‘As the sound of a plane ebbed in the darkness a rumbling came from Nigel's side of the bed and Jean's stomach gave a timid answering bleat. She could have felt sorry for those two stomachs had they lain side by side in white bloody trays in a butcher's window.’ And she has a quick car:
‘Sometimes I feel I can't go on, Doctor …’
‘Go on, Mrs Roe.’
There is nothing precious about her effects. Novelists have recently been excoriated for escapism, for not addressing themselves to bad news. Mackay has always written about recognisably bleak contemporary circumstances. Women novelists, on the other hand, are always being accused of concentrating too narrowly on what's going on around them: of being too polite, too middle-class (this seems to matter more in the case of women), too domestic. Mackay, who is no chronicler of china or linen or stable families, writes to a large extent about women who are called sluts or slags, centring her fiction on desolates or drifters, on characters who are more often glimpsed as part of a backdrop of urban disintegration. The protagonists of Dunedin are less obviously imperilled than earlier Mackay characters: they own houses and have—or have had—respectable jobs. Nevertheless, one middle aged woman turns into a baby-snatcher; her brother is an ex-headmaster who has never recovered from a tragedy on a school outing; her ex-lover is a spectacular drunk. Mackay is most pointedly satirical when dealing with this last character, a writer, and his creative-writing-class exploits. His way of dealing with unfavourable reviews of his work is to ring up the reviewer in the middle of the night and do heavy breathing (‘There were ways of handling these things if you were a pro’); when an author kills herself shortly after a sneering review by him: ‘“Probably done old Enid the biggest favour of her career,” Terry muttered as he cracked open a can of Red Stripe. “She'll be a Virago Modern Classic before you can say ‘knife’.”’ Mackay became a Virago Modern Classic several years ago.
Mackay's books are scattered with topical and period references—to Jimmy Saville's T and T Club, to Double Biological Ariel, to Home and Away. They are savvy but never studiously realistic: there is always something strange and elusive going on. In Dunedin it is the animals. They are everywhere, and they are an indicator of the author's temperament: dark, funny and attracted to the bizarre. This is the book of, among other things, a vegetarian: meals and garb have a particular aspect—people munch ‘bits of dead animals in buns’ and wear sandals ‘hacked from the hide of an animal recently dead’; routine icons of dismemberment—a pub sign showing ‘a hare about to be torn apart by a pack of hounds’—are seen as savagely intrusive. The edges of scenes are busy with the normally undetected movements of small creatures: snails are squelched, toads are threatened, fish bump around in tiny tanks, lobsters claw their way out of boiling cauldrons. Every now and then the scenes shift slightly in composition and the beasts come to the fore in ways characteristic of Mackay's writing. This can be calmly humorous: ‘Ashley smiled, knowing that her friends laughed at her close relationship with the cats: recently she had been stung into telling Rosemary that her children were substitute cats.’ Or violent and paradoxical: Smithfield porters, ‘the bloodstained conscience of London’, protest in gory aprons against hospital cuts. Or grim and extraordinary: a man beats on the door of his prison, ‘howling his dog's name’. The focus on everyday life is altered not incredibly but irrevocably: it is as if one looked at the Cabinet and found that all bar two of its members were women. The result is a world which is recognisable, peculiar and amusing. And full of unsuspected animation. Thank Pan.
SOURCE: Broughton, Trev. “Affirmation of Life.” Times Literary Supplement (30 July 1993): 21.
[In the following favorable review, Broughton identifies the unifying theme of the stories in The Laughing Academy to be “the limits of responsibility and compassion.”]
Here are nine perfectly crafted stories from a master of her medium. Shena Mackay's most striking characters are an unlikely, unprepossessing bunch—dry old sticks and wallflowers, the weedy and the seedy—but she somehow confers on them vivid beauty and coherence. The most benighted old codger, the frumpiest drudge, acquire a curious but unmistakable dignity and stature. In “Cloud-Cuckoo-Land”, Roy Rowley's borrowed spectacles reveal, with sudden, harrowing clarity, the shoals of salmonella in the kitchen, the pills and bobbles on his wife's jumper, and, between the cuff of the tracksuit bottoms and his brogues, the nightmare of his own ankles:
Roy could not believe the knobs and nodules below the fringe of black-grey foliage, the wormcasts and bits of dead elastic. … “These aren't my feet,” he said. “Some old man has made off with Roy Rowley's feet while he wasn't looking and dumped these on me.”
More devastating still, the glasses expose to him his own pretensions as a do-gooder, as a “baggy-trousered philanthropist”. For a few hours, he sees the signs of ugliness and decay in the community he has been trying to salvage; sees himself as a symptom rather than a solution. “He stood, what else could he do, a well-intentioned bloke in an anorak; a drone.”
Taking the classic short-fiction formula of a few “red letter” minutes or hours in a single life, moments of heightened awareness and urgent deliberation, Mackay draws us swiftly inside her characters through their unique relationship to language. For Mackay, this relationship is not just about thoughts: it is joyful flesh, aching bone, erratic pulse, stubborn immune system. Mackay insists that the rhythms and contours of experience are defined as decisively by this relationship—by old jokes and corny lyrics, by the bad puns and daft sayings of childhood—as by the rigidities of conscious thought. Moreover, she brings to the musings and chunterings of her characters a comic range which extends from Fay Weldon to Leonard Rossiter. There is overblown Monica who plays the harmonica, and Violet Greene who likes her own name (“pre-Raphaelite purple and viridian … the hectic hues of Arthur Hughes”).
Even the most incidental, monosyllabic characters have their own idiom, as individual as a fingerprint. In “A Pair of Spoons”, Bonnie and Vivien are lesbian Lovejoys, savvy rural antique dealers conning the locals out of their Clarice Cliff crockery. The man from the CID catches the couple celebrating their latest heist with a glass of champagne and a smoochy dance. “Good evening, ladies”, he announces. “Filth.”
Unlike the soggy inverts of D. H. Lawrence's “The Fox”, of which Mackay's story is a sly revision, this pair manage to outwit both the male intruder and their own mutual jealousies and fears: “the Friendly Old-Established Firm, back in business”. Mackay is not always so upbeat. In “Shinty”, Margaret and Suzy attend a book-launch to confirm to themselves that Veronica Sharples, the primary-school sadist of their childhood memories, has flowered into a best-selling, politically correct … primary-school sadist. Their satisfaction dwindles, however, as the evening progresses and they piece together their own complicity in “Ronnie's” regime.
If there is a connecting thread in these stories, it is this probing of the limits of responsibility and compassion. It is a question for the 1990s: what would happen if, strained to breaking-point by the Welfare recession, our emotional infrastructure gave way? What would happen if our resources of caring, of minding, came to an end? If the voice at the end of the telephone counselling service for phoneline addicts (Roy Rowley's Helpline Helpline) told us to “try a bit of aversion therapy—piss off!”? Mackay's vignettes allow us a glimpse of all these possibilities. But even at their grimmest—and there is betrayal, disappointment and horror in The Laughing Academy—the stories gasp out an affirmation of life. When a character wonders “whether we should love one another if we were made of glass, with all the workings visible, like transparent factories”, the answer is a brisk, non-negotiable, “We should have to.”
SOURCE: Cooke, Judy. “City Lights.” New Statesman and Society (30 July 1993): 39.
[In the following positive review of The Laughing Academy, Cooke underscores Mackay's widespread appeal as a fiction writer.]
You have to laugh at life's absurdities. It's better than being taught how to cope in the Laughing Academy, aka the Funny Farm, remembered fearfully by one of the most vulnerable characters in these stories [of The Laughing Academy] as “a sort of stale amyl-nitratey whiff, a sniff of sad, sour institutional air or a thick meaty odour.”
Shena Mackay's keen ear for dialogue is complemented by the precision of her descriptive writing. She can evoke a mood or point up a meaning with one or two carefully chosen images—dead foliage clinging to a thorn bush, or plane trees in autumn standing like “dappled benign giraffes”. The humour in this hugely entertaining new book is often hilarious, over-the-top surreal; the prose style stays close to home, interweaving snatches of conversation, pop lyrics, jargon, advertising slogans, puns and scraps of poetry.
In one of the shorter pieces, “Glass”, a woman has to decide whether or not to leave her lover. She scrutinises every object she finds on her walk from “the little squares of opaque glass” in the pavement to the powder compact in the shop window, “a lid of butterflies' wings”. It is a lonely moment of choice but not an isolated one. Her decision is made in a renewed understanding of her own temperament, informed by everything that she has seen. Mackay's romanticism, like Allen Ginsberg's, suggests that the diversity of city life, all its perplexing phenomena, can be a comforting blanket keeping us warm.
She has a great talent for comedy in the English tradition: one of the strengths of contemporary fiction overlooked by those critics who like to diagnose its decline. I recommend they read “Cloud-Cuckoo-Land”, a study of blinkered do-gooding that bears comparison with Dickens' attack on Mrs Jellyby. The Rowleys are a family possessed. Ron works for Helpline Helpline, “established to counsel people addicted to ringing, or setting up, Helplines”. His wife is the charity worker from hell. His daughter escapes for a time by becoming a Jehovah's Witness. In the spirit of N F Simpson, the Glums, and the best of Alan Bennett, the writing builds to a crescendo of appalled observation.
Even funnier is the group portrait of the politically correct sisterhood, gathered to worship Ronnie Sharples at a women-only reading in the Charing Cross Road. Jean and Margaret, schoolfellows of the erstwhile Veronica, can pack a pretty mean punch themselves. But Ronnie's entrance, flanked by twin Tonton Macoutes and attended by her latest partner, Mog (“rumour had it that she had been bought as a slave in Camden Market”) subdues them temporarily. Ronnie is narcissitic, predatory, violent and richly deserving of her eventual humiliation. Could such a one exist in literary London?
Shena Mackay appeals to a wide readership, as was evident in the success of last year's novel, Dunedin. The broad range of her material probably has something to do with this, together with the sheer hedonistic fun of what she has to say. My favourite story, “A Pair of Spoons”, is the cleverest, sexiest piece of writing I've read since Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber. Indeed, there is a fairytale element in Bonnie and Vivien's adventure: the Friendly Old-Established Firm of dealers, whose relationship is threatened by an Aladdin's cave known only to one of them. Love triumphs, as does Beauty. Don't miss this story of the Wolf, the Fox and the Filth.
SOURCE: Smith, Penny. “Hell Innit: The Millennium in Alasdair Gray's Lanark, Martin Amis's London Fields, and Shena Mackay's Dunedin.” Essays and Studies 48 (1995): 115-28.
[In the following essay, Smith comments on the influences of World War II in Mackay's Dunedin, Martin Amis's London Fields, and Alasdair Gray's Lanark.]
While it can be argued that mere fin de siecle inevitably courts disillusionment, the recognition that there is to be no brave new world just around the corner, it is useful to keep in mind that ‘for most of human history the idea of the millennium itself has been essentially hopeful’ (O'Toole, 29). After Apocalypse comes judgement, and thereafter the thousand-year rule by Christ and a panoply of saints. As we approach the third millennium, however, any belief in resurrection has increasingly become the province of suicidal cults: for the rest of us the dancing on the Berlin Wall is over and we watch in growing alarm as the spectres of civil war, genocide, and nuclear vandalism slouch across the landscape of a disintegrating Europe. According to the historian Eric Hobsbawm:
the European 20th century has already ended with the collapse of the last great utopia of communism and the return of the map of Europe to a shape similar to that before the first world war.
(cited O'Toole, 29)
If, then, the millennium has already encroached into the European consciousness by a couple of decades might it not be that the state of mind that we have come to describe as postmodern is actually better understood as being ‘postmillennial’? (A possibility that postmodernism, with its underlying sense of ending and crisis, has long been hinting at anyway.) And might it not also be possible that the end of the twentieth century can be pushed back even further than Hobsbawm suggests? As far, say, as the mid twentieth century? For in the three texts to be discussed here, Lanark (1981), London Fields (1989), and Dunedin (1992), there is a sense that as we approach the year 2000 we find ourselves looking not forward but back, to the catastrophe that has cast its shadow across the second half of the twentieth century, the Second World War.
If the period since the war has witnessed the occasional preemptive obituary of history, the death of the novel has been hailed with even greater regularity. What call for the novel when narrative has leapt from the printed page to the computer screen? In the last decade of the twentieth century the once-upon-a-time reader is transformed into either a hero/player, negotiating/narrating a path through levels of increasing difficulty, or a writer/programmer disappearing into the variable choice that is the hypertext, where it is guaranteed that no readings can ever possibly be the same. Whereas narrative as was, on the page, on the stage, on the cinema and television screen, did (despite readings translated through gender, race, class, age, sexuality) have a certain, albeit fragile, stability, we are now faced with the possibility of endless instability, of no shared readings being possible, or desirable.
Postmodernism supposes the predominance of the electronic media, but it is also apparent that narrative is demonstrating a determination to survive in a resurgence of oral tradition and in the novel's own ability to incorporate, and even to thrive on, instability. Readers can no longer be entirely sure of just where they are, or when the next leap—in genre, difficulty, faith—will be necessary. Alasdair Gray's Lanark—‘possibly the first Scottish metafiction’ (Imhoff, 75)—is a prime example of this.
The fragmented text that is Lanark reflects, however, not only contemporary pressures on narrative but, more specifically, the fragmented consciousness of the protagonist(s), Thaw/Lanark, and the state of late capitalist society. We begin with what appears to be a realist text, as a man of about twenty-four sits on the balcony of a bohemian cafe in what might be any decade, in any city, of the twentieth century. Realism, however, quickly lurches into science fantasy: the man sits staring out into the darkness not in hope of enlightenment, but in the hope of catching a glimpse of sunlight. The city he finds himself in is Unthank (a fact not discovered till the next stage of his journey, this piece of information being kept secret by the civic authorities for ‘security reasons’, 31). Unthank is a thankless place, where it is always dark, it is impossible to keep track of time's passing, and people are afflicted with attacks of ‘dragonhide’ (from which Lanark suffers), ‘twittering rigor’, ‘softs’ or ‘mouths’. Comparing his symptoms with those of Gay, a woman patron of the cafe, Lanark is appalled when she unclenches her palm to reveal a mouth, through which Sludden, the leader of one of the cafe's cliques speaks to him. Gay is Sludden's mouthpiece, in every sense, and Lanark suddenly realizes where he is: ‘… this is hell!’ (45).
Up till now he hasn't been sure. He's arrived in the city on a train, nameless and with no memory (something he's made sure of by throwing away the papers and diary he discovers in his knapsack). All he is sure of is that he craves sunlight, that he couldn't be an artist—when Sludden suggests this occupation he says he has nothing to tell people (6)—and that he has arrived in a place where people randomly disappear when the lights (the electric variety) go out. Some individuals refuse to disappear quietly: her last lodger, Lanark's landlady informs him, ‘left a hell of a mess … And his screams!’ (13). But when Lanark's turn comes he goes voluntarily. A giant mouth (or vagina) opens in the ground at his feet announcing ‘I am the way out’ (47), and Lanark leaps in. Only to find himself reborn in an even stranger place, the institute.
For the reader the institute links the worlds of Lanark with our own: Lanark is tended by a doctor who informs him that this is an establishment which has ‘been isolated since the outbreak of the second world war’ (53), and his supply of reading material includes Our Wullie's Annual for 1938 and No Orchids for Miss Blandish. What we have, then, is a parallel universe, a fracturing of the world as we know it that occurred during the war. This connection with our own here and now is subsequently made clear in the story Lanark hears from the oracle in the Prologue and Books One and Two (the novel begins with Book Three). The connecting passage between the parallel worlds is death: Lanark, Duncan Thaw in his previous life, commits suicide and so finds himself as the nameless man on the train, shunting into an alternative existence.
Or does he? Douglas Gifford argues that the only consistent way to read Gray's novel is as hallucination resulting from mental breakdown (Gifford, 111). But while such a reading is certainly consistent with the realist characterization of Duncan Thaw, the text as a whole strains against such consistency. Lanark, with its disrupted chronology and structure, self-reflective notes, allegorically-laden illustrations (see Lee), extravagant layout and typography, not only demands but also deserves an exuberant suspension of disbelief. Duncan Thaw is reborn as Lanark. Lanark does find himself in the institute, where he falls in love with Rima, with whom he travels through time and space. To read Lanark's adventures as hallucination confines Hell to that small area within Duncan Thaw's tormented psyche, whereas the whole point of the novel is that Hell is vast and we are in it. Unthank is Glasgow is the industrial, post-war world.
The institute, still running after having been set up during the war, represents a fragmenting of space and time, and Thaw's childhood world is fragmented in much the same way, and for the same reason. Book One begins with Chapter Twelve: ‘The War Begins’. It's 1939 and Thaw's working-class family is evacuated from Glasgow. Thaw's view of the war is the view from boyhood: he can play at German spies on the beach and confidently announce to the local minister that he doesn't believe in Hell. To which Dr McPhedron prophetically replies: ‘When you have more knowledge of life you will mibby find Hell more believable’ (143). Young Thaw doesn't know it but Hell starts here and at a later date he will be able to point out its exact landmarks to his father:
‘Look at Belsen!’ cried Thaw. ‘And Nagasaki, and the Russians in Hungary and Yanks in South America and French in Algeria and the British bombing Egypt without declaring war on her! Half the folk on this planet die of malnutrition before they're thirty, we'll be twice as many before the century ends, and the only governments with the skill and power to make a decent home of the world are plundering their neighbours and planning to atom bomb each other. We cooperate in millions when it comes to killing, but when it comes to generous, beautiful actions we work in tens and hundreds.’
Social and industrial decline follow the war. Thaw's father can only find work as a labourer and his friends leave school for jobs which are boring, and dangerous: ‘… this business of being a man keeps you happy for mibby a week, then on your second Monday it hits you’ (215). One half of the planet's population dies of malnutrition while the other half thrives: ‘Men are pies that bake and eat themselves’ (188). A metaphor that, in the institute, becomes fact; Lanark discovers that the patients who aren't cured are used as fuel and food, despite many sections of the institute being owned by decent people ‘who don't know they are cannibals and wouldn't believe it if you told them’ (102).
Lanark is a study of the way power, particularly political power, works, and how it is fuelled by greed, hate, separation, and the inability to love. When, in the Epilogue, Lanark encounters his maker, the author/conjurer Nastler, he is told that: ‘The Thaw narrative shows a man dying because he is bad at loving. It is enclosed by your narrative which shows civilization collapsing for the same reason’ (484). Thaw, the schoolboy who doesn't believe in Hell, goes on to become Thaw the adolescent, wracked with asthma and eczema and the awareness that ‘Hell was the one truth and pain the one fact that nullified all others’ (160). Thaw the art student struggles against class, poverty, and an inflexible education system; but his most important failures are his own. He is a man who, like the society around him, is bad at loving. A man who, in his final breakdown, believes he has—and in fact might have—killed Marjory, the woman he loves but who doesn't love him back.
Duncan Thaw throws himself into the sea in 1956; toward the close of the century Lanark is an old man who has ventured into alternative worlds, and across time zones, in an unsuccessful attempt to save Unthank from destruction. Lanark's, however, is a different failure from Thaw's because, although inept and easily manipulated, he is capable of love. ‘I never wanted anything’, he tells Nastler, ‘but some sunlight, some love, some very ordinary happiness’ (484). He saves the life of Rima (once Marjory) in the institute, and is willing to risk his own life to save their son, Alexander. Love does triumph. And Alexander's existence confounds Lanark's creator:
The conjuror stared and said, ‘You have no son.’
‘I have a son called Alexander who was born in the Cathedral.’
Lanark's final chapter is simply entitled ‘End’. Nastler warns his character that ‘my whole imagination has a carefully reined-back catastrophic tendency’ (498) and when Lanark demands to know what will happen to his son, his creator simply replies: ‘I can't change my overall plan now. Why should I be kinder than my century? The millions of children who've been vilely murdered this century …’ (498-99).
Time has run out. In Unthank people pay for what they need now by pledging their futures (437), and there is no future left: ‘let us thrill the readers with a description of you ending in company. Let the ending be worldwide, for such a calamity is likely nowadays’ (496). There is a promise of a catastrophe of biblical proportions, although at the last the immediate threat abates, leaving Lanark aware of his own approaching death but relatively at peace with himself: ‘a slightly worried, ordinary old man but glad to see the light in the sky’ (560). Around him, however, a war continues to rage and there is little doubt that Unthank will finally succumb, swallowed by the creature which is otherwise manifested in the power structures known as as the institute, the council, the foundation (409).
Where Alasdair Gray is a better writer than he sometimes seems, Martin Amis sometimes seems to be better a writer than he actually is. The most common criticism of Amis's work is that the parts are better than the whole, a contagious style ultimately failing to make up for lack of content. At the same time, there is no doubt that London Fields is both an indicator of the zeitgeist, as well as an influence, and no discussion of the millennium in contemporary British fiction can afford to leave it off the list.
Amis's text shares Lanark's sense of there not being much time left: ‘Oh, Christ, no, the hell of time. … Time takes from you, with both hands. Things just disappear into it’ (239). As the Note to London Fields explains, an alternative title could have been Millennium. However as ‘M.A.’ (the text is a prolonged tease and we're never sure whether we're in the hands of Martin Amis, real author, or Mark Asprey, fictional creation) explains: ‘everything is called Millennium just now’. So London Fields it is: ‘This book is called London Fields.London Fields …’ [p. vii].
Although the year is supposed to be 1999, 1989 is how it reads, with the bubble of the Eighties about to burst and recession immediately around the corner. London is at crisis point—although it is difficult to identify what form the crisis will actually take. Certainly the weather is behaving very oddly, there are cyclonic winds (killing ‘nineteen people, and thirty-three million trees’ (43). The animals are dying (97), and rumour has it that there is to be massive flooding, cosmic rays, and the Second Coming (118). The natural world is on fastforward, rushing toward catastrophe with the political situation racing to keep up. There's danger of ‘A flare-up. A flashpoint somewhere’ (105). The international situation is mysteriously linked to the ill-health of Faith, the First Lady (207), and the ‘new buzz word’ is ‘Cathartic war’ (417). The sun is daily sinking lower as the earth tilts on its axis in anticipation of a full eclipse on November 5, at which point, so the rumours go, two nuclear bombs will explode, ‘one over the Palace of Culture in Warsaw, one over Marble Arch’ (394).
It's the end of the century and the planet is braced for impact (197) because while previous millenniums didn't really mean the end of the world (‘Nobody had the hardware’, 369), this time things are different. But when November 5 does come around, there isn't a bang but a whimper. The comet doesn't hit, the bombs don't explode, the sun returns to its normal position. A woman, however, is murdered and we are back with what we were promised on the novel's first page: ‘This is’ the story of a murder.’
London Fields is a murder story, popular fiction dressed up as high art, a text that functions as much as a textbook (designed for the undergraduate seminar requiring neat examples of the metafictional and postmodern) as a novel. Where in Lanark there are ‘two’ novels, one an experiment in realism, the other science fiction, London Fields is also multi-layered, the commentary of the narrator, Samson Young, sandwiching the fiction he is writing. The commentary, of course, tells us that this fiction is ‘real’ (‘This is a true story but I can't believe it's really happening,’ 1): a woman—Nicola Six, ‘the murderee’—dumps her diaries in a London rubbish bin (26) and an author finds a ready-made story. At the same time Nicola Six finds her murderer. Or, rather, potential murderer for while, in Lawrentian terms, a murderee is always a murderee, ‘The murderer was not yet a murderer’ (18). A murderer has to be made, and so Samson Young describes how Nicola goes to work on Keith Talent who, although ‘a very bad guy’, working class, petty crook, wife-beater, rapist, is not yet ‘the very worst ever’ (4). It is up to Nicola to turn him into that, and in order to transform Keith into what is required she plays him off against Guy Clinch—upper class, nice guy, handsome, rich (27).
Nicola Six (a blend of sex and an Apocalyptic 666) has from an early age always known ‘what was going to happen next’ (15), and in the case of her own murder is playing both prophet and author. Why she wants to die is another matter: ‘It's what she's always wanted’ (1). Nicola Six is a heart, and ball, breaker: ‘She pauperized gigilos, she spayed studs, she hospitalized heartbreakers’ (21). For Guy, Nicola plays the virgin, teasing him into a state whereby he loses dignity, sanity, family. For Keith she's the whore. Nicola is all things to all men: ‘I'm worried’, Samson Young tells her, ‘they're going to say you're a male fantasy figure.’ To which the reply is ‘I am a male fantasy figure. I've been one for fifteen years. It really takes it out of a girl’ (260).
If this is the writer (the real writer, Martin Amis) attempting to cover himself the attempt is less than a success. Geoff Dyer confides that ‘youngish male writers’ find themselves struggling against the influence of the Amis style (‘… the guy has got it. I mean, really’) and ‘accusing each other of imitating him’ (Dyer, 8). Some women critics, however, appear to find Amis less difficult to resist (Ellison, 21) and it is easy to see how the depiction of Nicola Six invites accusations of misogyny, even though Amis's apparent intention is for his female character to be read as a symbol of her age rather than a sign of her gender. Nicola is self-destructive, compelled not just to cancel love but to murder it (21), a perversion of emotion which, according to this text, is reflected in a predeliction for sodomy: ‘It was the only thing about herself that she couldn't understand and wouldn't forgive’ (67). But while Nicola can't quite comprehend her own desires she is aware that ‘Literature did go on about sodomy, and increasingly’ (67). Joyce, Lawrence, Beckett, Updike, Mailer, Roth, Naipaul (68), compiling her list of (male) writers she is tempted to see sodomy as a ‘twentieth-century theme’, and Nicola ‘would be perfectly prepared to represent her century’ (67-8). Sodomy, for Nicola, is about negation—‘That's what I am, she used to whisper to herself after sex. A black hole. Nothing can escape from me.’ (67)—and that too is the motto of the suicidal last century of the second millennium.
The twentieth century has ‘come along and after several try-outs and test-drives it put together an astonishing new offer: death for everybody …’ (297). At the end, however, death calls only for Nicola, who barely whimpers. This doesn't mean that the big bang won't happen, but is more a recognition that it has happened already. We've already seen the big one, and are living in its aftermath. The big one was the Second World War and what it unleashed, the possibility of nuclear holocaust. Just as Nicola has known since childhood what was going to happen next she's been accompanied by an invisible companion: ‘… Enola Gay. Enola wasn't real. Enola came from inside the head of Nicola Six’ (16). As part of her effort to humiliate Guy, Nicola extracts large amounts of money from him on the pretext of trying to save Enola Gay and her little boy, stranded in south-east Asia as a result of the Cambodian war. But just as Enola Gay isn't really a refugee in Thailand or Burma, she isn't a fantasy either:
‘Enola Gay’ was the plane that flew the mission to Hiroshima. The pilot named the aircraft after his mother. He was once her little boy. But Little Boy was the name of the atom bomb. It killed 50,000 people in 120 seconds.
Nicola has been able to con Guy because, like the vast majority, he hasn't known one of the most important facts in his sad century's history. Similarly, Keith has to be told that the bikini Nicola dons is named after the Bikini Atoll:
‘What American men did there—one of the greatest crimes in human history. If you got the world's most talented shits and cruelty experts together, they couldn't come up with anything worse than Bikini. And how do we commemorate the crime, Keith?’ She indicated the two small pieces of her two-piece. ‘Certain women go about wearing this trash. It's very twentieth-century, don't you think?’
So diabolical in fact that it's as if the Second World War never really ended: ‘… it seemed possible to argue that Hitler was still running the century. Hitler, the great bereaver’ (395). History ended mid-century and what we are caught in in London Fields is the hell of the perpetual present.
Nicola Six, the murderee, walks in the shadow of Enola Gay, and so too does her murderer. When Nicola appears in the Black Cross pub Samson Young leaps to the conclusion that she's recognized her murderer in Keith. But this is one of those whodunnits in which the unwitting narrator turns out to be the ‘who’. ‘She leaned forward. “You,” she said, with intense recognition. “Always you …”’ (465). Nicola had known him from the start (466). And Young should have known too because he and Nicola are linked by the fact that they're both as good as dead already (260). However where Nicola, representative of a self-destructive century, wills her own death, Young has had his willed on him as a legacy of the work his father did, in London Fields, on High Explosives Research (120, 161).
Samson Young is ‘pre-nuked and dead-already’ (323). So when Guy is about to kill Nicola, Young can make a deal with him and take his place because he has nothing to lose. ‘After the first blow she gave a moan of visceral assent’ (467) and the narrator is left to take a suicide pill. A murder and a suicide and everything goes back to normal. Which is the problem with London Fields because, ultimately, any political message there is about the destructive temperament of the century, the madness of things nuclear, is lost as the skies clear and the novel, like other of Amis's novels, concludes by valorizing class and gender (Doan, 79). The woman gets what she's asking for and her death is, ultimately, engineered by Guy who beats up the already-humiliated Keith and reasserts himself as the dominant, upper-class male. The post-war, postmodern, postmillennial world gets back to normal.
Hannah Arendt's explorations of the dynamics of holocaust have demonstrated the banality of evil, and this is the premise behind Shena Mackay's powerful, and alarming novel, Dunedin. Mackay's text begins as a realist novel set in 1909, effortlessly jumps forward into a dark comedy about middle-class, suburban life in south London, 1989, then skews sideways into a surreal, alternative world which serves as a nightmarish vision of the future.
In the early years of the new century the minister Jack Mackenzie and his family, fresh from Scotland, sail into Dunedin harbour, New Zealand, and find: ‘the New World glittering at the end of the beams which streamed from the fingers of God as a sign that all would be well’ (3). In this last century of the second millennium, however, God's influence is decidedly weak. Jack Mackenzie, hypocrite and sensualist, disregards the needs of his flock, tyrannises over his family, and is more interested in science than religion. Nothing is well at all.
Where cause and effect are tenuous in both Lanark and London Fields, the equation is carefully worked out in Dunedin. Thus Sandy, Jack Mackenzie's son, will become overtly what his father is covertly, a professional con-man. The minister brings bad luck on his son, and on his son's children, the Mackenzie family representing in miniature the repercussions of imperialism and colonialism on future generations. When they leave Dunedin they take bad luck with them back to the Old World in the form of a preserved head which Jack steals—as a scientific curiosity—from his Maori lover, Myrtille. But the head is ‘tapu … sacred or magic (27): in 1811 a sailor stole a similar one and six years later was killed, along with some of his shipmates, by the natives he'd robbed. In revenge the Maori city of Otago was set alight and destroyed (10-11). Jack Mackenzie knows the story, but doesn't heed its lesson.
Eighty years later the English, once with a mighty empire to exploit, can only exploit each other. South London in 1989 is, like the rest of Europe, a frightening and dangerous place where it is no longer safe to let children play in the park alone (60). A fact recognized only too well by William Mackenzie, Jack Mackenzie's grandson, whose career as a headmaster comes to an end when one of his students is murdered on a school trip. William blames himself:
almost every moment of the day and night, waking screaming in a sodden, strangling tangle of sheets. The horror of the child's going.
It is for their lost children that William and his sister, Olive, grieve. Olive finds a solution in the simple expedient of child-napping. The pretty black baby in his mother's arms on the tube is irresistible and when Olive gets him back home she announces that he is named Theodore: the next morning her brother leaves this ‘Gift of God’ (81) outside a local hospital.
Olive sees the baby as a desirable object; less desirable is the scruffy boy she meets in the Horniman Museum. Nineteen-year-old Jay Pascal, newly arrived from New Zealand, is beaten and robbed on his arrival in London (280), and is appalled by the ‘vastness, noise and dirt’ of the city (66). Should she ask him, Jay—who might not be a gift from God but is certainly one of God's holy fools—would be only too happy to go and live in Olive's house. But all Olive offers is a lift, and even when he asks to be dropped off at ‘Dunedin’, once the Mackenzie family home but now a derelict squat, she fails to ask why this young New Zealander has come to stay at this particular address. If she did ask she would discover that Jay, brought up in an orphanage in New Zealand, has made his way ‘home’: Jack Mackenzie not only stole the sacred head from Myrtille, but left her pregnant, and Jay is his great-grandson.
Jay soon joins the ranks of the ‘ruined people’ (70). This is the wasteland of the Eighties, the Thatcher years: the hospitals and asylums are in the process of being demolished and the patients have been left to make their own way in ‘what they had been taught to call the community’ (73). The disaffected, deranged, and dispossessed, sleep in doorways, beg at tube stations—and it is at this point that Mackay's vision of the future begins to shape itself along the lines of what is, after all, not a remote past. Because before long:
There were those who had decided that something must be done about them. Private enterprise was engaged to trawl the streets in the dead hours before dawn. … Rumours of disappearances circulated in crypts and park benches and in derelict houses but nobody walked into a police station to register a vagrant as a missing person.
The reality of late-Eighties England, the increase in begging and homelessness, the well-publicized moves to ‘clean up’ areas like the Strand and the cardboard city clustered around the South Bank, reverberates with the reality of late-Thirties Nazi Germany. The millennium is on the doorstep and its shape is that of the Holocaust, the ‘T4’ euthenasia programme and the removal of ‘asocials’ to concentration, and death, camps.
Late one night Jay is bundled into a windowless van ‘marked Department of the Environment’ (187) and finds himself at St Anne's, a vast Victorian house which has quietly been removed from the Ordnance Survey maps and isn't listed in the telephone book: ‘it was as if it did not exist’ (185). And the people who have been brought here, ‘herded into the reek of misery and rot’, might as well not exist any longer either:
They were being addressed by a man in a quasi-uniform of navy blue: ‘… and just in case there should be any barrack-room lawyers among you, with any fancy ideas about Human Rights, I should point out that you lot have renounced any claim you might once have had to humanity. You are no longer human beings. You are the scum of the earth. Your subsciptions to Amnesty International have been cancelled. If you have any friends, which I very much doubt, they won't find you here. Oh yes, one more thing, there is no way out, so don't even think about it.’
This is the discourse of power and brutality, legitimized as ‘the Vagrancy Act’ (318), and in the face of this Jay's appeal for justice on behalf of himself and his fellow prisoners is not only futile but dangerous: ‘Why am I being kept prisoner here? And it's not just me, all of us, we haven't committed any crimes and if we had we're entitled to a hearing, not just to be locked up and beaten …’ (318). A sign above a row of bins reads ‘Refuse To Be Incinerated’, which is how the institution's staff regard the inmates. Jay reads the same sign and determines to survive: ‘I will refuse … I am still myself. I won't let them destroy me. I will get out of here’ (236).
The reader is tantalized with the hope that Jay might escape the incinerators. Father Jeremy, a vicar who in these last days of the century cherishes a touching faith in God, also harbours the suspicion that something is dreadfully wrong at St Anne's: ‘I know that God wants me to find out what it is’ (193). He eventually hears the truth from the director's secretary:
As Cheryl spoke of vans disgorging broken people into the courtyard, of black-windowed private ambulances, the secret laboratories, locked rooms where naked men and women rocked silently in filth, the faint far-off cries of children, it was as though a troop of demons streamed from those rosebud lips.
Jeremy, blessed with a loving wife, a baby son, and the ability sometimes to read others' thoughts, seems to be just the person to blow Dr Barrables’ establishment sky-high. This is the conclusion that Barrables comes to himself, with the result that Olive later reads about: ‘a curate and his family, wife and child, who had been killed in a freak accident, when their Volkswagen Beetle had run off a seemingly empty country road in broad daylight and somersaulted down a chalky bank (326). ‘Hell on Earth’, Olive reads in her paper, ‘Greek Island of the Insane Exposed. Why it couldn't happen here …’ (325). But Hell is here already, experienced by ‘a monkey with … tubes and electrodes coming out of his scalped head’ (193), ‘galvanised animal concentration camps set in stinking yards’ (265). It is only a short step from here to the conclusion that if people like Jay are ‘no longer human beings’ (188) then genocide is, humane. Like with animals … the kindest thing …’ (241).
Olive, wrapped in her cloak of self-centred, middle-class angst, can read the newspaper article about the dead curate and his family without reading it: ‘“They'll be all right,” she thought dully, turning the page’ (326). Passing a boy huddled outside a pub she does briefly remember Jay and ‘if goodwill had any power against evil a spark flared for a second in the darkness’ (329). But in the gathering gloom that is the end of the second millennium, evil has won out and for Olive the only answer left is a return to the God that her grandfather turned his back on at the beginning of the century: ‘“Well,” she thought. “Seeing as no one else bloody well wants me, I'd better see if God will take me back”’ (330). In this black comedy this might either be a reference to suicide, or to the Evangelicals who have just passed by.
The suggestion of suicide links Olive to Thaw/Lanark, and Samson Young. However a stronger link among Dunedin,Lanark, and London Fields, is the fear we feel not so much for ourselves but for our children, and our anxiety that they should be kept safe. In Dunedin successive generations fail their children and in the last years of the century there is no assurance that anyone can keep a child safe. However the one sliver of hope that the novel does offer is the fact that Olive's brother, William, has found a lover and conceived a child.
As Nastler reminds Lanark, this is a century in which millions of children have been vilely murdered. Lanark, a child of the Second World War, is desperate to know what will happen to his son Alexander in the war which is to engulf Unthank. And Alexander, in turn, is quick to assure Lanark that his own daughter is ‘in a safer place than this, thank goodness’ (556). Meanwhile, in London Fields, Nicola Six is finally murdered for the sake of a child. Samson Young loves Keith's baby daughter, Kim. Kim, however, is being abused by her mother, Kath, who is abused by Keith. The deal Young strikes with Guy means that Kath and Kim will be looked after financially, and Kim will be safe in the future.
With the Second World War history entered hell's gates, and never came out again. Apocalypse but with no Second Coming, no heavenly jurisdiction. But while history might have ended some fifty years ago it is still possible to hope that it can move forward once again through future generations. Thus, as the sun sets on the battleground that was the twentieth century time becomes even more urgent, for it is now: ‘time to do this, time to look for our children and see how many we can find’ (London Fields, 469).
Amis, Martin, 1990 (1989). London Fields, Penguin.
Doan, Laura L., 1990. ‘“Sexy Greedy Is the Late Eighties”: Power Systems in Amis's Money and Churchill's Serious Money,’ Minnesota Review 34-5, Spring-Fall, 69-80.
Dyer, Geoff, 1993. ‘Mad about the boy,’ The Guardian, 2 Nov., 8.
Ellison, Jane, 1989. ‘Battlefields,’ The Guardian, 12 Oct., 21.
Gifford, Douglas, 1987. ‘Private Confession and Public Satire in the Fiction of Alasdair Gray,’ Chapman 10.i and ii, Summer, 101-16.
Gray, Alasdair, 1991 (1981). Lanark, Picador.
Imhoff, Rudiger, 1990. ‘Chinese Box: Flann O'Brien in the Metafiction of Alasdair Gray, John Fowles, and Robert Coover,’ Eire-Ireland 25.i, Spring, 64-79.
Lee, Alison, 1990. ‘Un-mastering masterful images,’ in Realism and Power: Postmodern British Fiction, Routledge, 99-127.
Mackay, Shena, 1992. Dunedin, Penguin.
O'Toole, Fintan, 1995. ‘The Dredd of 2000 AD,’ The Guardian, 7 Jan., 29.
SOURCE: Emck, Katy. “Down Rabbit Lane.” Times Literary Supplement (14 June 1996): 22.
[In the following review, Emck deems The Orchard on Fire as “a bittersweet, gentle novel, not given to grandstanding or preaching, but shot through with humour and compassion.”]
Shena MacKay's new novel [The Orchard on Fire] opens in an elegiac mood. April, a middle-aged teacher, a divorcee, sits brooding in her low-rental London garden on one of those ruefully lovely summer evenings when every cranny of decayed wall erupts with dust-covered plant-life. Her reflection is broken by her neighbour, the jauntily-named Jaz, the author “of several unpublished manuscripts of the depilatory school”, who refers to April's attempt to stem the floodtide of weeds as “a spot of ethnic cleansing”. But for all her urban cynicism, Jaz is really Janette from Northumbria, “a damp fungus grown from a spore blown on to London plaster”, while April is “a brittler accretion, but as rootless”. The pair are as diasporic as the pheasant berry, which “seeds itself everywhere, leaving dead canes where it cannot stand the competition, that rattle and creak”.
The mood of creeping disaffection is premonitory. It prepares us for April's return to the Kent village where she grew up in a teashop called the Copper Kettle. English teashops are as immemorial as English weeds. They suggest a 1950s never-never land of discreet curtains, cosily steamed-up windows and scones with “lashings of jam”. Middle-aged April is still April the eight-year-old: “it was the time that coloured everything for me, that set my weakness for the gaudy and ephemeral. …” April loves fairy lights, hanging spider plants, electric candles. And Shena MacKay picks up on details which are so right that April's memories of childhood seem to be one's own. For instance there is Veronica, the schoolgirl who smells of Marmite and—obviously, since she can't shake off the smell of food—lacks spirit.
The village of Stonebridge, for all its staid appearance, is a theatre of English eccentrics. There are the local female artists, greenery-yallery types, theatrical but kind. There is April's grandfather, whose pet project is to build the Crystal Palace using matchsticks, silver cigarette paper, pipe cleaners and bits of sponge dipped in green ink (for the trees). There are April's parents, London publicans turned country-teashop owners and Communists. Less cosily, Stonebridge sports a young man who hangs around in lonely places cadging kisses from girls by jamming them up against walls with his bike. It is also inhabited by Mr Greenidge, ageing but dapper in a panama hat, the wolf in the woods where April plays.
The child's sense of melodrama, her love for secret refuges and morbid, sensational fictions—Deathcap Cottage is one—is threaded into a fearful tale that is not imagined but real. On arriving in Stonebridge, April makes friends with the fiery-headed Ruby. They share a taste for adventure, a passion for illicit hide-outs and stories about murder and code-breaking. Slowly April comes to see that Ruby is being beaten by her publican father and neglected by her harridan of a mother. However, neither Ruby nor April's parents are aware of the pact that has sprung up between April and Mr Greenidge. The Edenic orchard and thrilling train carriage where the children play are refuges from the adult world in more senses than one. Lovers Lane is no longer a childish joke, and the dark intruder they imagine beyond the confines of their camp is all too real.
But April never tells. And the easy good humour of her family life continues for the most part undisturbed, along with the quiet hum of village existence. The Orchard on Fire is an elegy for a lost time as much as a deconstruction of its cosy virtues. The portrait of the passionate, anarchic friendship of April and her red-headed friend, Ruby, makes the novel a celebration of childhood as well as a mourning for the loss of innocence. Their friendship is made in the immediate, absolute, instinctive way that only children can imagine. It forms the heart of the novel, along with April's enduring love for “ANTIQUES BYGONES KITCHENALIA. … Utensils with scorched handles of yellow banded in green, rusted bun tins that print fancy leaves on the bottom of your fairy cakes … a Chad Valley swan and a big tin Triang tortoise”. Yet April reacts ironically when she finds that the Copper Kettle is selling off its “kitchenalia” to nostalgia tourists, wryly observing that “they are trying to buy their way into the past they think we had, they want to be snug and safe down Rabbit Lane”.
The Orchard on Fire is written more in sorrowful affection than in anger. It is a bitter-sweet, gentle novel, not given to grandstanding or preaching, but shot through with humour and compassion. Shena MacKay is effortlessly amusing but never plays for laughs. Her writing brilliantly captures the spirit of place, where every present sensation has ghostly overtones that make experience all the more sad and lovely.
SOURCE: Birch, Carol. “Remembered Ills.” New Statesman 125, no. 4288 (21 June 1996): 45-6.
[In the following review, Birch offers a mixed review of The Orchard on Fire.]
At the heart of The Orchard on Fire is an intense best-friendship between two little girls in a fictional Kent village in 1953. Kingfishers flash on the river, the meadows are lush with wild flowers and the bloom is on the plums in the forgotten orchard where they have their den in an abandoned railway carriage. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship, cemented by pacts, codes and secret understandings.
Over this rural idyll hangs the awful guillotine shadow of child abuse, threatening to break the friendship and ensuring their ultimate separation. For Ruby the abuse is brutal and physical and comes from her own parents. For April, the narrator, it's more subtle. She falls prey to white-haired Mr Greenidge, the “charming man” who walks his ailing wife's dachshund through the village and lures April into a world equally private but infinitely more damaging, of stolen old man's kisses and pathetic trysts.
There is an assurance to Shena Mackay's prose that is up and running from the first line. Her descriptions and evocations of place and atmosphere are very fine indeed. “We forced open the door,” says April, speaking of that first breathless entry into the secret railway carriage, “and stood in the smell of trapped time.” One almost hears the scuttling of spiders outraged at the intrusion, senses the light filtered through “earthy, rain-streaked, bird-squirted, berry-smeared windows.”
Less successful are the depictions of minor characters. April and Ruby inhabit a world of stereotypes whose delineation is so shallow that at times you feel you have wandered into the pages of a children's book. Villains practically twirl their moustaches. Artists are dippy and fey, professors absent-minded, Cockney grannies the salt of the earth. The local communist family is so saintly it glows with Waltonesque warmth.
April herself is convincingly rounded. She has picked up on the inconsistent moral reasonings of the adults around her and struggles to make sense of them. Capital and corporal punishment are, for example, condemned but “Lex [Ruby's father] ought to be put up against a wall and shot.” The clear consensus is that some people are very nasty indeed and deserve a good kicking. Smug in her disdain for the failings of others, April is less than kind to a would-be friend whose main sin seems to be that “she smelled of Marmite and had warts on her hands.”
April and Ruby, despite their abuse, are cocky, confident children, surprisingly well-balanced; at least it would seem so if the story were not planted, by way of an introduction and epilogue, firmly in the here and now.
Ruby we do not see as an adult but April, recalling the past at fiftysomething, has clearly suffered. The child has become “a hard-faced woman with a mascared tissue crumpled in her lap applying lipstick in the cruel sunshine.” The book's triumph is in capturing the sense of grief for a friendship untimely ripped apart almost half a century ago and the evocation of the magical intensity with which childhood cloaks landscape—the sadness and treachery of those “blue remembered hills”.
SOURCE: Brookner, Anita. “A Memory of Yesterday's Pleasures.” Spectator 276, no. 8763 (29 June 1996): 35-6.
[In the following positive review of The Orchard on Fire, Brookner contends that “in her misleadingly straightforward novel the author has set out a rite of passage which will leave few readers unaffected.”]
It can be no accident that on reading the first few pages of this haunting novel [The Orchard on Fire] one is enveloped by a feeling of nostalgia, not for Provence, not for Tuscany, but for hot sun in a London garden, and a July evening spent with a book under a dusty tree. Shena Mackay is the celebrant of unfashionable suburbs, Streatham and Sydenham, Norwood and Herne Hill: her richly subversive Dunedin, in which her disconcerting talent was given its head, took place within these confines. The nostalgia, in the present case, expands to take in Kent, equally unfashionable, and the village of Stonebridge, where her protagonist, April Harlency, grows up after her parents, gallant losers in the licensed trade, take over the Copper Kettle Tea Room.
And that is it, the story of an almost happy childhood, into which the occasional disturbed adult intrudes, posing problems for April and her friend Ruby Richards, daughter of the landlord of The Rising Sun. April and Ruby are heroines, with the peculiar loyalty and truthfulness of inseparables, free to play in the fields, to wheel about on their bicycles, to make a hideout in a disused railway carriage. Their minds and characters are complementary, until their complicity is arbitrarily broken up. Left to themselves they are invulnerable, but of course they are not left to themselves.
It is 1953; television sets are rare and the wireless reigns supreme. ‘Let's have a bit of entertainment’, says April's mother, and they tune in to Family Favourites. Into this almost prelapsarian setting a dissonant note is sounded by Ruby's brutal father, and even more so by the jovial and priapic Mr Greenidge. In both cases their wives are compliant, knowing and accepting. This might almost be an exemplary story for children, warning them of the dangers of the adult world. The date is important: in 1953 politeness inhibited children from denouncing aberrant behaviour. Today there would be help lines, social workers, counselling. The crux of the story is the incorruptibility of the children, although they are not proof against fear. One might say that even so they are too ignorant to be truly frightened. How could they be? Their reading matter consists of Little Women and Anne of Green Gables; they have neither witnessed nor imagined a primal scene. April remains mystified by Mr Greenidge's friendship, although she grows increasingly uncomfortable as he requests a meeting by the telephone box. It was only his dog which attracted her, but even a dog can be an instrument of seduction.
The friendship between April and Ruby is beautifully done, and here a further nostalgia is brought into play, this time for a life before knowingness, calculation, bargaining. The afterword is therefore all the more shocking. An adult April goes back to Stonebridge to recapture, or to try to recapture—the attempt is doomed—something of those early years. She is hard-faced, lonely, a teacher of English. She has learned how to dissemble, how never to give a straight answer. She has been brought to this condition by the process of ageing and the loss of a friend. This is the final nostalgia, then, for the friends of one's youth, whose memory is all the more poignant when they are no longer there to comfort one for the mistakes made in later life.
Shena Mackay has brought off something quite rare, a completely unpretentious story written with the benefit of hindsight. She embraces no modish theories, alludes to no wider themes, is sparing with historical and local colour. The writing is functional, but natural and easy, so easy that one accedes immediately to the girls' private language and concerns. It would be equally easy to dismiss The Orchard on Fire as an agreeable diversion in an era of heavyweight literary exercises. This would be a mistake. The subtlety with which it traces misplaced causes and effects is calculated. Love and friendship are at stake, although apparently explored only in two children who inevitably lose their innocence. That is the tragedy, of course, the tragedy which befalls most children. In her misleadingly straightforward novel the author has set out a rite of passage which will leave few readers unaffected.
SOURCE: Field, Michele. “Shena Mackay: The Menace of the Domestic.” Publishers Weekly 243, no. 49 (2 December 1996): 36-8.
[In the following positive review of The Orchard on Fire, Field praises Mackay's sense of the macabre and provides an overview of her literary career.]
The annals of contemporary fiction are full of authors of highly praised but little-known books. Few have produced a body of work that is as fresh and evocative as the 11 volumes that Shena Mackay has written since 1964. Her latest, The Orchard on Fire, a Booker Prize nominee, recently published Stateside by Moyer-Bell, displays her sharp eye for the macabre and humorous domestic dramas of the English middle class.
Mackay (pronounced to rhyme with “reply”) is the most mysterious of the six authors to be shortlisted for this year's Booker. This is partly because she attends fewer literary parties than she is invited to: she lives in an outer-London neighborhood that is beyond the reach of the tube. But it is not only her seclusion that has maintained her mystery—she also doesn't belong to a literary clique that might spread gossip about her.
In person, Mackay, 52, is a striking figure, whose beautiful white pageboy haircut and quiet voice lend her an air of invulnerability; it somehow takes 10 minutes to absorb the fact that she is also nervous. Mackay answers PW's questions as if she were in a doctor's office and is careful to be accurate. She refuses to hedge, freely telling her American audience more about herself than most British readers know from the few interviews she's given in recent years.
The narrator of The Orchard on Fire is a young girl with whom an elderly married man has fallen in love, and who is beset by feelings of bewilderment and entrapment as his pursuit turns into psychological molestation. The novel subtly shows how life goes on with girlish things despite the bad scripts of adult lives. All of Mackay's books are about the charged emotional lives of very ordinary middle-class nailbiters.
Mackay was born in Edinburgh, the second of three sisters. Her parents were intellectuals who had met in college, but none of the girls pursued higher education. The burned plastic smell of families melting apart surrounds Mackay's life story and the stories in her books. “My mother was a schoolteacher, but she got rheumatoid arthritis when she was in her 30s and got progressively worse,” says Mackay. “It was a fairly tempestuous marriage and I left home at 16, around the time they split up. They had ambitions for their daughters initially, but the ambitions petered out.
“My mother died about four years ago, and I see my dad quite regularly now. I never lost touch with him entirely [as the rest of the family did]. But I don't consciously put my family into my books, and the family in The Orchard on Fire is not my family; it is more Louisa May Alcott, an invented ideal family that is not mine. There is some of my childhood in The Orchard, but it is more a feeling than specific incidents.”
Unlike the protagonist of The Orchard on Fire, Mackay grew up in an urbane, literary environment. Her parents knew various Scottish writers who were living in London and had a circle of painter friends. “The bohemian lifestyle did seem interesting,” Mackay laughs. “It was what I wanted to do.”
A PRECOCIOUS START
At age 16, Mackay won her first literary competition (with a poem she wrote at 14) and through that met other writers. Throughout her life, she has been close to art critic David Sylvester (who recently curated the Francis Bacon show at the Pompidou Center in Paris). “I did meet lots of painters—the old Colony Room crowd like Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud,” she says.
When Mackay left school at 16, she worked in an antique shop in Chancery Lane owned by David Sylvester's sister Jackie, who in turn was married to Frank Marcus (who wrote The Killing of Sister George). “Frank Marcus was manager of the silver shop and I was 17 when I showed him something I'd written, and he showed it to his agent, who showed it to a publisher. It was Dust Falls on Eugene Schlumberger and it was far too short, but they said if I would write something else they would publish it. So I wrote Toddler on the Run.”
Mackay had just turned 20 when both works were published in one volume by Andre Deutsch. She found her first agent immediately in Peter JansonSmith. Shortly thereafter, when another member of the firm, Deborah Rogers, left to form her own agency (now Rogers, Coleridge & White Ltd), Mackay moved with her. “II think I am her oldest living client,” she muses.
Mackay married a former school friend, a petro-chemist named Robin Brown (whom she divorced in the 1980s), moved out of London and wrote three more books while raising three daughters—two by Brown, one by Sylvester. Then from 1971 to 1983, nothing was heard of her.
Pressed to explain why she left the literary fast lane after such a promising start, it becomes clear that the pressures of raising three daughters, often singlehandedly, played a significant role. “It was not so much deliberate as it just happened. I didn't give up, but I did write a novel which has never been published—which now looks like a rough draft of A Bowl of Cherries, which was published in 1984. Indeed my publisher, Jonathan Cape, rejected A Bowl of Cherries, too, but I was friends at that time with the writer Brigid Brophy and she showed it to Iris Murdoch, who helped see that it was published by a firm called Harvester.” She pauses, and adds with a smile: “I think Harvester just does CD-ROMs now.”
Apart from small jobs in libraries and shops, Mackay has always written. Her first novel to be published in the States was her third in Britain, Old Crow (McGraw-Hill, 1967). Later that year, Simon & Schuster brought out Toddler on the Run as its own volume. “Then nothing in the States at all,” she says. “‘Too English,’ I was told.
“But a few years ago, I heard from Moyer-Bell.” It was critic and novelist Francis Wyndham, whose Whitbread Award-winning novel, The Other Garden, is also published by the small, Rhode-Island-based press, who first introduced co-publisher Jennifer Moyer to Mackay's work. Moyer-Bell has since released a collection of Mackay's stories called Dreams of Dead Women's Handbags (1994), two novels in 1992, Dunedin and A Bowl of Cherries, and an anthology of short stories about sisters that Mackay edited called Such Devoted Sisters (1994).
HAROLD PINTER IN THE KITCHEN
Mackay's signature is recognizable from book to book: a sense of menace below the check-pattern of middle-class life; a subliminal eroticism charging everything (“but no blow-by-blow sex scenes,” Mackay points out); and a very sharp definition of time and place, of brand names and domestic manners—altogether, as if Harold Pinter were taking you through the contents of his kitchen cupboards.
Why does nothing in her discussion of these books suggest that most of them end in death? “Well, there is a death per page in the first two novellas, and I think I have fewer deaths now,” she laughs. “Still, one or two.”
“Old Crow, like The Orchard on Fire, is set in Kent,” Mackay says when asked what in her life has given rise to the peculiar mix of hilarity, surrealism and gloom that animate the commonplace world of her books. “I lived in Kent from the age of eight to 15—though it is a very fictionalized version of a village called Shoreham, where William Blake and Samuel Palmer once lived. I don't actually have roots—though I feel Scottish and I go back there—but I do feel very strongly about Kent.
“You can read my biography,” she says, in the two books that followed Old Crow,Music Upstairs (1965) and An Advent Calendar (1971), both of which concern a young married couple. “Both, I think, have a mixture of humor and sadness and ends on a note of muted optimism. ‘Black humor’ is what the reviewers said, and of course there is that, but it is a very easy label. A lot of my humor is punning as well, and slapstick.”
Redhill Roccoco (1986) was written around the time of her divorce, when she and the girls moved to a suburb of “happy-clappy” Christians, as she calls them. “I used to like going to church, but I hate this kind of enthusiasm, so I don't go to church now. I like an evensong, the pews three-quarters empty, a few candles.” She is being ironic but truthful. Her eldest daughter, Sarah, and her husband are members of a Christian organization that has sent them to Pakistan to work with Afghan refugees. Mackay hopes to visit them in March.
Dunedin stands out among Mackay's work because it abandons the suburbs of modern London that she has made her own for New Zealand at the beginning of the century (“a New Zealand of my imagination, since I hadn't been there”). It is the only occasion when she has not written about a remembered past. “The book was about empire and the damage colonialists can do. And the contemporary scenes are set among vagrants on the streets of London. I was drawing an analogy between a Scottish family who went out to New Zealand and how it all went wrong for them; and how everything has gone wrong in London.”
When she wrote The Orchard on Fire, Mackay returned to the same tone as her earlier books, but for the first time she wrote in the first person. “And I wrote it in a completely narrative-linear way: I mean I just sat down and wrote it after putting it off and putting it off. I know I put writing off because once you enter it, you know you will be in a very intense state and won't want to be interrupted. So if you have other commitments in life, it is very easy not to start.”
Mackay is slowly making inroads with American readers. Both Dreams of Dead Women's Handbags and A Bowl of Cherries, a novel about two unhappily married authors of detective fiction, received glowing reviews in the New York Times Book Review. At press time, she has just concluded her first American book tour, which culminated at the Illinois Humanities Council Literary Festival in Chicago, where 250 fans turned out to hear her read from her four books published here.
She has previously made just two trips to New York, both private holidays for less than a week. “I actually hate book tours but I pretend to like them when I want to go somewhere like Chicago, which I have only seen in the movies. I remind myself that there is no such thing as a free lunch,” she says wryly.
Today, Mackay is as prolific as ever. Moyer-Bell's edition of Dreams is a compilation of three short story collections previously issued in England and she is building up to the publication of still another story collection. Mackay has continued to write short stories although her longer fiction is in demand. The novels are more lucrative, but the money question does not hound her. “Let's say money has always been problematic, up and down, and often more down than up.”
Mackay lives in a one-bedroom flat and when she has people to stay “well, it would be lovely to have them stay comfortably. My second daughter, Rebecca, is married and has a little boy, Harry, who is 18 months, and she is expecting another baby in December. Grandchildren are the most wonderful thing, and I want to be able to afford a house somewhere for them and me.” Cecily Brown, 27, Mackay's third daughter (the daughter of David Sylvester), is a painter living in New York who illustrated the jacket of the British edition of The Orchard on Fire.
British critics have compared Mackay to authors ranging from Dickens to Ronald Firbank and Muriel Spark, but she seems far too vivid to be a clone of somebody else. An unconventionally glamorous woman, doting grandmother and a writer who sees the world with witty intelligence and heartbreaking clarity, she deserves her own place in the literary pantheon.
SOURCE: Chong, Denise. “In the Playground of Good and Evil.” Washington Post Book World (28 January 1997): D10.
[In the following positive review, Chong views The Orchard on Fire as a charming and evocative novel.]
You can have a near out-of-body experience with Shena Mackay's latest novel, The Orchard on Fire. In its opening pages the narrator, April Harlency, remembers her childhood: “I was never a particularly balletic or acrobatic child, but sometimes when I was happy I could see another self slip from my body and run leaping and doing cartwheels, somersaulting through the air beside me. I almost glimpse her now, running along an undulating hedge and telegraph poles' tightropes.” Few readers can help but see their other self slip from between the pages. By the time they catch their breath at this compact novel's end, they will both welcome and regret the inevitable journey back to adulthood.
Deservedly, The Orchard on Fire was short-listed for last year's Booker Prize. For American readers, it can be an introduction to Mackay, a Scottish-born writer living in London and previously published but little-known in the United States. Mackay's publisher says it “aims to change that” with this novel, yet it makes a couple of irritating mistakes about the story on the inside jacket. No matter, as reading The Orchard on Fire (and Mackay) for the first time, I fell under its spell and found myself wanting other titles by her on the bedside table. To my delight, Shena Mackay, first published at age 20 in 1964, has amassed a body of work that includes not only novels but stories.
The Orchard on Fire begins with an adult's reminiscences, when April, living alone and her parents both dead, takes a day trip from London to the village of Stonebridge. At the end she makes a haunting discovery about what has become of her best childhood friend, redheaded Ruby Richards. In between is a richly wrought story of an intense friendship that takes place almost a half-century earlier between two girls, both 8 years old.
April's and Ruby's lives come together when April's parents move from London to Stonebridge to try to make a go of the Copper Kettle Tea-room, in the same village where Ruby's parents run the local pub, the Rising Sun. Where April's parents radiate a cozy warmth, complete with a baby sister or brother for April on the way, Ruby's are ill-tempered, hateful and destructive. Although the girls create a secure world in a secret hideaway in a forgotten orchard, whenever they go back to the world of adults, the novel is gripped with nervous tension. Lurking from page to page is the white-haired Mr. Greenidge, in a Panama hat and with a dachshund on a leash, who conspires to find himself alone with April. He is unwittingly aided by her parents, who insist that she accept his invitations to Sunday tea with him and his childless, ailing wife. Also in April's cast of evil is Ruby's father, as she makes a connection between his unprovoked rages and her friend's passing references to being “locked in the cellar.”
Such harm and cruelty would today be labeled sexual abuse and domestic violence, which in the novel's 1950s setting didn't exist as neighborly suspicion, much less criminal offenses. Between April and Ruby, there are no answers and fewer questions about the infallibility of the adults around them. Mackay delivers her verdict on the irrevocable damage done without a hint of raw preaching but rather by telling the story from a child's point of view and by exquisitely preserving in the girls' friendship a corner of that world that is unassailable by adults.
For all the bleakness of stolen innocence, there is no drabness in The Orchard on Fire. Mackay populates the novel with an array of colorful characters who make the village complete, including teacher, constable, butcher and cheeseman, as well as the occasional outside visitors, such as weekend arty guests and twin professors. The sense of place is rendered sensuously and lovingly: When April's parents first see the Copper Kettle, its windows are sealed with “gravy-colored paint” and the living accommodation is decorated in “tones of meat and two veg”; they redo it in hanging spider plants, fairy lights and lace curtains.
If the author's words charm us, the pace of the story makes us charge compulsively through them. Still, the effect of the book, infused with compassion and the bemusement and unintentional humor of children, Engers. The Orchard on Fire is a wondrous novel that will birth emotions anew, age them with experience and tinge them with an aching melancholy.
SOURCE: Clausen, Jan. “Passionate Friendship.” Women's Review of Books 14, nos. 10-11 (July 1997): 35.
[In the following review, Clausen surveys the strengths and weaknesses of The Orchard on Fire.]
When eight-year-old April Harlency, “born into the licensed trade,” arrives in Stonebridge, Kent, the first person she meets is red-haired Ruby Richards, busy setting toilet paper afire in the ladies' room of her parents' pub. As the Harlencies settle in to run the Copper Kettle Tearoom, the two girls form a passionate, nearly seamless friendship. Though plagued by a gendered terror of public spaces (“None of the village girls would have dreamed of walking down Station Hill at night … because everybody knew there was a man with a sack and a knife waiting to jump out on you”), they push the envelope. Ruby takes the lead; she knows that terror begins at home.
Their glorious alliance can't alleviate the solitude in which each girl faces her own powerlessness. Neither April nor her loving but preoccupied parents can do much about Ruby's troubles (a father who belts her, a mother who justifies it). And April can't tell Ruby of her own panic at the behavior of Mr. Greenidge, the dapper gentleman with the dachshund and the dying wife, who lures her to tea and plies her with hideous kisses.
Its jacket slathered with predictable references to “coming of age” and loss of “innocence,” this fierce and gentle novel [The Orchard on Fire] in fact depicts the world of little girls—and the reputedly “safe” era of the early 1950s—as always already tainted, disillusioned, compromised. Ruby believes her parents hated her from birth. The beauty of rural Kent looks like this: “You might catch the flash of a kingfisher or the scuttle of a crayfish into a glinting tin can on the river bed.” When first embraced by Mr. Greenidge, April already knows not only that it's “wrong because Mr. Greenidge was married to Mrs. Greenidge,” but that she mustn't be rude to him. Later we watch her wield unwanted power and understand her adult question: “Had I been the destroying angel in a cotton frock and wellingtons?”
The social scene is understated gothic, numbering among the dramatis personae cracked old Mrs. Chacksfield, said to have slept for weeks with her husband's corpse; two unattractive middle-aged teachers, Miss Fay and Major Morton, spied in a moment of disoriented lust; a visiting professor, wildly inebriated, who drops—literally—dead at the prospect of having to lecture on art history to a bunch of “bacchantes with sketchbooks.” Mackay nicely captures the weird moral autonomy of certain childhoods, the sense of being utterly on one's own with problems too grave to entrust to adult solutions.
Stonebridge is poor and narrow, but possesses an integrity to which Mackay pays homage via immaculately observed physical detail and inspired rendering of a child's garden of language. (April pictures the Iron Curtain as “rusting corrugated iron hung with white convolvulus”; she puzzles over the “dicky ticker” to which Mr. Greenidge attributes his wife's invalidism.) It's a world of rank odors (“piss and biscuits,” strong drink), suffused with cruelty and patchy splendor. Splendid indeed is the abandoned orchard, a “dark-green and purple-blue paradise” where the girls establish the “camp of our dreams.”
The story of how those fragile dreams are wrecked seems to me the least successful portion of the novel. Ruby and April are lost to one another, while the hovering Mr. Greenidge is dispatched with a melodramatic flourish that feels rushed, as though Mackay had belatedly perceived a need for plot. Compounding the problem, flashback machinery creaks annoyingly, and the adult April evinces little of her remembered child self's tough grace. A self-pitying divorcee, she's capable of greeting a misdelivered pizza with the thought: “It's not for me. I ordered the dust and ashes special, with extra acrimony.”
Why didn't grownup April search for Ruby, her most important friend ever? The offhand explanation that she'd “thought we had all the time in the world to find each other” doesn't satisfy when the loss of this friendship is asked to bear so much symbolic weight. The Orchard on Fire ends on a note reminiscent of the lament for lost friendship in Toni Morrison's Sula, but in the latter novel it's Morrison's demonstration of how the bitter logic of womanhood dooms the friends that gives Nel's elegiac “We was girls together” its tragic force. If Mackay neglects to show us where the magic went, she triumphs in conveying how it felt while it lasted.
SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Chop Shop.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (26 October 1997): 2.
[In the following review, Eder commends the absurdist humor and social satire he finds in An Advent Calendar.]
John is buying chopped meat in his rundown North London neighborhood when Mick, the butcher's assistant, lands his cleaver on his own finger. In an uproar of blood, towels and hysteria, the finger somehow falls into the meat grinder.
An hour or so later, John's semi-invalid Uncle Cecil comes to the table with an anticipatory grunt of “lovely grub” and guzzles up the meat sauce despite the odd bits of bone and gristle. Soon the butcher is at the door demanding the return of the finger. The dog ate it, John lies, stricken. Rather than remark on the manifest absence of a dog, the butcher inveighs furiously at the idea of anyone feeding good meat to a pet.
With this beginning, a reader will expect An Advent Calendar to be a work of absurdist humor and perhaps—bearing in mind Shena Mackay's British (Scottish) nationality and the purposeful use of such humor by writers like Joe Orton and Brendan Behan—of social satire as well.
There is social commentary in Calendar, but it is something more desolate than satire. The humor is mainly dark, but there is nothing absurdist about the struggling and penniless young family of John, his wife Marguerite and their two children, the decrepit but sweet Uncle Cecil and one or two friends and neighbors.
Absurdity is in the world they try to manage. They themselves are frail and only shakily competent, but their integral humanity is unquestionable even if it has holes in it, like their breakfast toast (the mold spots having been cut out beforehand). They bear a resemblance to Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus in Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, who try to hold out through our planet's upheavals from the ice age to the present. Mackay's characters lack Wilder's soft-edged whimsicality. Their ice is real, though it dazzles unexpectedly and even harbors, like igloo blocks, a sporadic warmth.
The upheaval that Mackay depicts is specifically the changed ethos of Thatcherite and post-Thatcherite Britain, though it could apply to a more generally troubling contemporary world. In the dismal gray London neighborhood, the social fabric has frayed.
A slaughterhouse and a garbage dump stand near Uncle Cecil's once pleasant, now decayed house. Electric wires dangle from the walls, the dust is an inch thick and the kitchen is so greasy that when Marguerite lights a burner, the whole stove flames up. The plant nursery Cecil used to run is abandoned, its signboard lying “in a black slime of petals, among slug-trailed panes where long worms and roots writhed through fiber pots.”
Two decades of free-enterprise retreat from the concepts and practices of a welfare state have created more than economic hardship in the neighborhood. The social connective tissue has withered; there is a bleak emptiness between one character and the next. Even those bound by love and family find the links straining.
John, a college dropout, desperately wants to support his family but is too absorbed in his private musings and too disconnected from the world around him for steady work. On his first job for a house-cleaning company, he attaches the vacuum hose backward. When it spews out dirt, he berates the outraged client for keeping a filthy house and, in passing, for her prissy clothes.
Marguerite resumes an old affair with Aaron, a veterinarian, after he turns up to examine Uncle Cecil's sick goat. She loves John and her children; she also loves Aaron, and Aaron loves her. The world around her is too unstructured to help her with a choice. All three are good and endearing people. They try hard, but just as society's center has collapsed—a sense of the public as well as the private good—their own centers won't hold.
There is little action in the book; instead, there is lethargic, random activity, like fish swimming in a murky aquarium. While John and Mary struggle to work, keep house, confront and retreat from each other, their neighbors intersect with various degrees of incompetent good will or sheer malevolence.
Particularly malevolent—he is evil, defined in the theological sense as the absence of good—is Eric Turle, a self-indulgent middle-aged poet. He seduces Joy, a passionate teenage misfit. Besotted with poetry—and eventually destined to work in the slaughterhouse—she hides for hours in the school lavatory reading the “Golden Treasury” anthology and ignoring the insistent paging of the public address system.
In his wife's absences, Eric wins Joy by reading poems and plying her with Camembert. When they manage to spend a night together, she scribbles a love poem, awkward but quite lovely, in the notebook he keeps beside the bed in the event of inspiration. (There has been no such event for years; the pages are blank.) When his outraged wife discovers it, he claims that he has written the poem for her; they both turn on Joy, a heroine though ill-fated.
Another incompetent innocent is Elizabeth, a teacher who tries to befriend Joy and do other bits of good, all of which turn out badly. She impulsively invites a drunken street-cleaner for Christmas dinner, then practices cutting her hand for an excuse to put him off. She harbors an insatiably needy and vindictive school friend, who tries to hang herself from the shower rail and, failing, proposes going out for a drink.
Neither good nor evil is concerted. Just as society has disconnected from the individual, the individuals have disconnected from each other, despite their yearnings, and eventually from themselves. Even the most appealing of them lack the dimension of hope: that is, a sense of the future implicit in their present. One dimension less does not result in flatness but in a poignant evanescence.
Mackay suggests evanescence quite wonderfully with a prose that alights, vanishes, pops up elsewhere, interrupts itself and turns up again with unexpected finds. It can be disconcerting; no sooner do we delight in a person or passage than it breaks off. It is as if the author is keeping a distance from authorship; as if what she provides is something found by chance, undependably and possibly illegally.
SOURCE: Yardley, Jonathan. “Bleak, Blue-Collar and British.” Washington Post Book World (29 October 1997): D2.
[In the following review, Yardley regards An Advent Calendar as a proletariat novel.]
No doubt about it, this is a very strange novel. Written by a British novelist who has published numerous other books, it ventures into territory not often occupied by the novel, which is in essence a middle-class institution. An Advent Calendar by contrast is working-class fiction: not proletarian, guided by political and/or ideological purposes, but descriptive and empathetic, a look inside a world that is familiar to few regular readers of conventional fiction.
Shena Mackay sets the tone immediately. John, a young married man in difficult economic circumstances, stops by the butcher's for a bit of meat to share with his uncle, Cecil, with whom he and his small, unhappy family are temporarily lodging. He buys ground meat, which at home he tosses into spaghetti sauce. “Piece of gristle,” he remarks to Cecil, and pushes the offending morsel to the side of his plate. “I'll have it,” Cecil says and gobbles up the last of the grub.
Gristle, indeed. That hard piece of meat was a human finger, sliced from Mick, the butcher, as he wielded his cleaver. When John comprehends what has happened, he feels compelled to atone for Mick's loss but can only shout at him: “Do you want to know what happened to your finger? It got minced up by accident and my uncle and I ate it. That's right! I've eaten part of you!”
We are not, to put it mildly, in the world of haute cuisine. This is blue-collar England, a place where anonymous people struggle through bleak lives that offer little prospect of advancement and not much more of happiness. Marguerite, John's wife, feels weighed down by gloom as she “put on John's corduroy trousers, another sweater and socks, got into bed and lay too cold to move between the ancient sheets, thinking that she must lie there for at least thirty-one nights, because it was December 1st, and saw each day open like a dark door in an Advent Calendar.”
She has ample reason to feel blue. Not merely does her family have almost no money—John is reduced to swabbing for a cleaning service—but she must share close quarters with the eccentric Cecil, and she is utterly out of sorts with her husband. “He is completely indifferent to me,” she thinks as, a few feet away, he thinks. “How strange that that exotic bird should choose to perch for the duration of its one life on the chair opposite mine. Why does it stay, why not simply fly away?”
This in a fashion is what Marguerite ends up doing. She becomes involved with another man, one of some means who is happy to reward her with gifts of cash in exchange for the favors she extends. Yet rather than estrange her from her husband and children, this extramarital adventure gives her the freedom to buy Christmas gifts and bring something like pleasure into the household. Happiness may not be easy to come by, Mackay reminds us, but it is often nearer to our grasp than we are able to realize.
A similar lesson is learned in somewhat different ways by others who cross the family's path. Elizabeth, John's sister, had her own dread; she “couldn't remember how long she had known that she was going to be murdered, but could remember as a child lying stricken in a bath of congealing water, afraid to emerge lest her family had been silently slaughtered with an axe and the killer awaited her.” Yet rather than succumb and withdraw, she tries to befriend a student in the school where she teaches. Joy—never has a child been more cruelly misnamed—is a sad droopy creature, by her own account “the odd one out,” teased at school and neglected at home; “her heart was so conditioned by dread that it lurched, on holidays and weekdays alike.”
Elizabeth helps Joy find work babysitting for a friend, but what lies in wait is the friend's husband, a mediocre poet who promptly seduces Joy. What the two commit is “an unspeakable crime,” yet for the joyless Joy it arouses a feeling that might almost be called love, a connection with another human being, however illicit and abusive, that brings her alive for a few moments.
Happiness, Mackay seems to be saying, is where one must find it and does not often arrive in the form desired. This is true, and An Advent Calendar has the ring of truth. Mackay keeps her distance from her characters, but she never condescends to them. What humanity they achieve may seem parched to those who are more fortunate, but it is humanity all the same and must be recognized and honored as such. This Mackay does in a book that catches the reader by surprise: Terse and economical, Advent Calendar has far more to it than one first apprehends.
SOURCE: Shulman, Nicola. “Working the Party.” Times Literary Supplement (10 July 1998): 23.
[In the following review, Shulman compares The Artist's Widow to the work of Charles Dickens and praises Mackay as a highly talented novelist.]
It is traditional for novelists to write about painters, and with good reason. Paint makes manifest the invisible concerns of the writer; and the task of describing the painter at his work does not overload the burden of authorial research. So when Shena Mackay opens her new novel [The Artist's Widow]—about a painter—with an opening, it seems almost a nod of recognition to this arrangement of long standing.
The opening in question is a private view of works by John Crane, a painter whose credentials—British, Academic, representational, painterly, given to forming artistic communities in English seaside towns—ensure him a place at the furthest conceivable remove from the centre of fashion. It is an opening that, we are told on the dust jacket, “will change [the characters'] lives for ever”, an odd assertion in view of the fact that there is nobody there whose life is changed by it at all. Certainly not the painter Lyris Crane; her life was changed for ever when the death of her husband, John, turned her into the Artist's Widow of the title. For her, this party is the occasion when all the humiliations of her new position are borne irresistibly home to her.
Mackay is capable of compressing whole predicaments and their histories into a phrase. At this party, she works the room with such skill that, in just a few pages, we, like Lyris, can see it all. Here is Lyris asking Louis, the gallery owner (who has inherited the dealership of John Crane, along with the gallery, from his mother), if he could “go and be nice” to a couple who know no one and whose portraits are on the wall:
“John was very fond of them. Before you ask them what they do, Tony has a washing machine repair business and Anne's a dinner lady at our local school.”
Louis made a derisively submissive little bow and left her.
In this gesture, Mackay has managed to communicate not only the precise and relative standing, in the scale of Louis's opinion, of Anne and Tony, of John Crane and of Lyris, but the full force of that compound insult as it strikes Lyris. One hopes there are readers for novels in which people's lives are not changed for every, only realized in sentences sprung like that.
Also at the party is young Nathan Pursey, the great-nephew of John Crane. Nathan is a conceptual artist of the kind that feeds the vacuum of their talent with atrocities and narcissism. He works in rotten meat and sweetie wrappers and cyberspace, but his preferred medium is publicity, or would be if he could attract any. Plainly he is everything Lyris is not; and just as his brief peckings at the surfaces of ideas echo his faithlessness as a friend and lover, so Lyris's endless fascination with paint evokes her lifelong love of a single man. But Mackay is too economical to leave Nathan as a simple foil. He is also son and heir to the great comic characters of this book, the Purley Purseys.
I am well aware that any dodgy family appearing to comic effect in a London novel will, like a leech, draw out the words “Charles Dickens”. However, the righteous venality of the Purley Purseys and the author's most evident relish in creating them make the comparison unavoidable. Mackay is nowhere wittier than in her treatment of Nathan's family and their business (they are purveyors, mainly to gangland, of artistic floral tributes) which reflects so hilariously on Nathan's own line of work. A glorious scene with the Purseys at dinner in an Italian restaurant shows Mackay as a superb comic writer (“‘I wonder if I can make room for a knickerbocker glory, Pat?’, Sonia said, bringing her into the conversation”), but able also to reveal, through the comedy, exactly how the family favour has been distributed, and with what crushing results.
As a novelist, Shena Mackay is highly talented: she can do dialogue, description, characterization, drama, humour, pathos; moreover, she achieves her effects without adverting to them, as though she expects the reader to take a point lightly made. Indeed, what makes The Artist's Widow an unmistakable work of maturity is that it employs the author's every accomplishment while displaying none. For example, she puts her gift for idiom at the service of the book's central theme of loneliness.
Everyone here is lonely: Candy, an MP's abandoned mistress; Clovis the bookseller, damned by an act of gross cowardice; Jacki, Nathan's conciliatory girlfriend who wants to be liked and is not. But the loneliness of Lyris is the most acute; so much so that she is, crucially, vulnerable to the limited charms of Nathan. Mackay never alludes to it, but—making us first aware that here is a woman habituated, over fifty years of marriage, to being perfectly understood—she then beautifully demonstrates it in conversations where nobody can read Lyris's idiom and, with the typical condescension of the young, think she is perhaps misusing theirs. Only an expert mimic could bring this off.
There is one important lapse of judgment here. The events of this novel occur over the latter part of last summer. At length a horrible suspicion arises that we are all hastening towards a tunnel on the banks of the Seine; and so it proves. Doubtless Mackay could not foresee how the repeated batterings of the past ten months would make us dead to this subject, which now numbs everything that touches it. All the same, it's sad when a good book comes to a bad end.
SOURCE: Annan, Gabriele. “Lyris, Clovis, Nat and Candy.” London Review of Books (16 July 1998): 19.
[In the following review, Annan surveys the broad range of characters in The Artist's Widow.]
Shena Mackay's latest novel [The Artist's Widow] invites you to observe the Zeitgeist of 1997 addling the brains and hearts of quite a large number of Londoners. They seem an incongruous lot, but with her usual ingenuity she manages to portion out the action among them and to make them connect (not necessarily in the Forsterian sense). They tend to come in pairs locked in ideological conflict, which doesn't have to be verbal: it can be expressed in their behaviour, their domestic arrangements, their clothes. Altogether it is a Dickensian assemblage, vivid, lively, quirky and woven into a network that stretches from Dulwich to Maida Vale, and from Tufnell Park to the art galleries in Mayfair. Every bit of the novel is either topographical or topical, or both: like Hoxton, the new cool place for artists to have their studios.
Mackay has an uncommon ability to focus on environmental details and find evocative metaphors for them. Her prose, though, tends to go what her characters would call ‘OTT’, switching from relentless parody of the latest jargon to passages of the purplest prose. ‘The cotoneaster, gemmate with red berries, had spread in a peacock's tail over the grass’ is perhaps an unfair example, because when she notices the shrub behaving like that, the heroine, Lyris Crane, is thinking about Edith Sitwell's unhappy childhood. Lyris is very recently widowed and herself an artist. On another occasion she hears a suspicious noise in the hall, and ‘her slippery heart hurt as it leapt. As a dark shape bulked into the studio doorway she seized a large bottle of turpentine and flung it.’ She is a plucky old girl; and anyway the bulky thing is not exactly a burglar; only her ghastly great-nephew Nat, who manages to make off with her purse at the end of a chatty visit. His parents own a flower stall and have got rich by illegal means, so minor crime comes naturally to Nat. He is a conceptual artist and has just set up a group in Hoxton, but failed to make it into the Royal Academy's Sensation show.
Because of this rebuff, he is toying with the idea of moving on from brutalist imitations of Damien Hirst to art on the Net. Great-Aunt Lyris, on the other hand, pushing eighty and brought up a vegetarian Fabian, is a traditionalist painter. Her work sounds post-Bonnardian, and she regards art as a combination of public service and hymn to beauty. ‘My role,’ she lectures Nat, ‘is to record such things’—rose-hips seen against a green-painted wall—‘not only for their intrinsic beauty and for myself, but on behalf of people whose hearts are touched in precisely the same way’; and she quotes a little chunk of Walter de la Mare to reinforce her point. Lyris combines literacy, stoicism and personal austerity with charity and humour, and spreads inter-racial and inter-class tolerance. Her best friend is a school dinner lady married to a washing-machine repairman. The trouble is that it is difficult to emphasise the admirable nature of Lyris's attitude without making her sound patronising.
The rest of the cast is divided into goodies, baddies and what you might call lost girls. Some (not all) of the baddies are converted in the course of the novel, while the lost girls are found, or rather led to find themselves. One is Candy, a pretty, warm-hearted, middle-aged woman who sits alone at a café table in Maida Vale, while her bunch of little dogs wind their leads round the chair legs. Her lover of more than twenty years has left her. He lost his seat as a Conservative MP in the last election and has decided to spend more time with his wife in the country. However, by the end of the book it looks as though she will settle down with a nice divorced bookseller called Clovis who has a shop nearby.
The other lost girl is Jacki: ‘Jackee’, as she calls herself at the start of the novel when she wears her hair in dreadlocks and wants to be taken for a Caribbean half-caste instead of the middle-class white girl with affectionate parents that she is. Her black lover jilts her just the same, and so does Nat, the next man she shacks up with. So she falls into a depression from which Lyris rescues her by taking her in and getting her to help redecorate her house and lose weight by eating less comfort food. A happy ending seems in sight for her, too: on the last page, crass Nat is seen moving towards his great-aunt's house, a reformed character bearing the purse he stole from her at the beginning of the story. Perhaps he, too, will now paint flower pieces in vivid colours; and set up home with Jacki.
The Artist's Widow is indefatigably up to date. It has everything: conceptual art and Conservatives with lost seats and abandoned mistresses, paedophilia, snuff movies, public relations women in suits, TV interviewers, suburban developments with integral garages and names like Joekin's Mead and Biggs's Coppice, Ofsted, air pollution (with special reference to nannies driving their charges to private schools while primary school children breathe in their petrol fumes), education cutbacks, young offenders committing suicide in prison, baseball caps and cloned sheep. The deaths of Diana and Dodi provide the grand finale.
They coincide with the 50th-birthday party of Clovis's ex-wife Isobel, who lives in the country with their teenage daughter Miranda. Clovis and Candy have been asked, and they give a lift to Lyris. All the other guests have been disinvited because of the collision in the Paris underpass, but these three haven't even heard the news. They find Miranda in tears and Isobel too: ‘How can you stand there and congratulate me?’ she sobs. ‘Wishing me a happy birthday, how could you both? Have you no feelings at all?’ Candy, too, bursts into tears, and ‘Clovis envied her her ability to express the emotions he felt but could not have articulated.’ Isobel, however, goes too far: ‘I'm so pleased that Clovis has you, Candy,’ she says. ‘We must all take great care of each other.’ She is thinking of joining a Contemplative Order as soon as Miranda is settled. Or even establishing ‘my own Order. A sort of unofficially recognised community, a band of folk dedicated to living simply, dressing perhaps in some unobtrusive uniform, going about the world helping in little ways, righting wrongs by stealth’. This is too much for Lyris: ‘Everybody seems so determined to do good lately,’ she whispers to Clovis. ‘Do you think it would be a refreshing change to meet someone avowed to doing something really bad?’ Still, even she returns home ‘drained’ with ‘her eyelids … sore from weeping’. She has, presumably, achieved exactly the right measure of grief and compassion. You could see her as the Lady Troubridge of the emotions.
All the same, she has something in common with Olive, the embittered middle-class, middle-aged spinster baby-snatcher in Mackay's 1992 novel Dunedin.Dunedin covers the same territory socially and geographically—a brilliantly envisaged London stretching from one end to the other of the Central, Northern and District Lines. Olive, like Lyris, is appalled by the conditions and behaviour of the age she lives in. The difference is that she looks at them with disgust, whereas Lyris does so with a mixture of pity, irony and truly righteous indignation. Both books are as moralistic as Little Lord Fauntleroy; tracts, in fact, but ironic tracts. The irony is sometimes heavy, but mostly enjoyable and funny. ‘Wise and funny’ is how the blurb describes the novel—a publisher's cliché to put one on one's guard. Still, it deserves to be on the syllabus for students of social anthropology.
SOURCE: Fairweather, Natasha. “It May Look Like a Sack of Cement to You. To Me, It's a Dead Sheep.” Observer (19 July 1998): 14.
[In the following review, Fairweather considers The Artist's Widow to be a disappointing novel.]
At some juncture in her lengthy career as a writer, Shena Mackay must have encountered the publisher's publicist from hell. For in her new novel, The Artist's Widow, Mackay sketches a vicious cameo portrait of Nancy Carmody, the glossy, publicist daughter of a Conservative MP who lost his seat in the 1997 election. More interested in her funeral clothes than the reasons behind the suicide of one of her authors, Nancy is described as a slippery eel while her philandering father is likened to a weevil.
Writing with what reads like personal bitterness, Mackay describes the branch of publishing to which Nancy belongs: ‘All those people with their fat salaries [who] have no conception of life at the other end of their industries. They take more holidays than hairdressers. They should remember who pays for their fine clothes. They pick people up when it suits them, make them jump through hoops and then toss them aside.’
Perhaps Mackay was put off the publicity game during the hoopla which accompanied the nomination of her previous novel, The Orchard on Fire, for the Booker Prize of 1996. Although she did not win, the novel—an intimate, touching and memorably funny evocation of a rural Fifties childhood—was widely praised for the authenticity of its voice and the brilliance of its polish. Readers coming to The Artist's Widow looking for more of the same lustre will be disappointed. In spite of Mackay's technical adroitness, this novel is much less alluring.
Written in the less intimate third person, The Artist's Widow draws a disparate group of Londoners into a plot which revolves slowly and uneventfully around an artist's widow called Lyris Crane who is also an artist in her own right. In her eighties, and rattling, increasingly breathlessly, around a large house in Dulwich, Lyris is potential prey to many of the parasites of the artistic world. Louis, an oleaginous Mayfair art dealer, knows how to humiliate Lyris in a hundred tiny, patronising ways. The exotic and coke-sniffing Zoe Rifaat wants to depict Lyris not as an individual, but as a type, by featuring her in a film she is making for Channel 4 about unjustly neglected women in artistic partnerships. And Nathan Pursey, her great nephew by marriage, who is pursuing a high-profile but financially unrewarding career as a conceptual artist, has designs on her money, her art collection and her house.
Through the absurd and despicable figure of Nathan, Mackay is able to parody the contemporary art scene where traditional craftsmanship and a true desire to communicate through the medium are overshadowed by the flashy installations and half-baked concepts of many of the artists who feature, for example, in Charles Saatchi's private collection. Nathan, who submitted a photocopy of his bottom in his degree show at the Chelsea Arts College and still came away with a degree, was catapulted briefly to celebrity when he discovered a sack of old cement in the backyard which looked like a felled sheep. ‘Dead Sheep’ went on to lead a contemporary art exhibition.
But when we encounter Nathan in the novel, he is on a downhill trajectory. Sophie, the most talented painter in his artistic collective (and the only woman), has decided to strike out alone. And he is reduced to masturbating on his childhood bed as he vacillates about whether his sister's old doll's house is simply a child's plaything or an ironic statement about contemporary life.
Although Mackay begins to develop some ideas about the relationship between the quality of an artist's work and the integrity of their personal character, the novel's biggest problem is that Mackay appears to have nothing to say. Lyris, questioning Nathan about his cultural milieu, insists that she needs to know about the Zeitgeist since: ‘Everything is remixed and recycled nowadays and I want to be able to take the references in some multi-media project.’ But as Mackay peppers her text with the full monty of contemporary cultural references—from Di and Dodi's high-impact death, to the Spice Girls (admittedly before the departure of Geri), and boy bands in general—it feels as though she is less concerned about capturing the spirit of the times and more about using style to disguise a critical lack of substance.
Perhaps Mackay was hurried into print by a publisher keen to capitalise on the previous Booker nomination. But it is a shame that The Artist's Widow falls short of her writing at its best, for there are moments in this novel when the reader is reminded of how good she can be. There is the dazzlingly original comic portrait (a welcome break in a novel short on laughs) of Jacki Wigram, the wigga (white nigga) who once passed herself off as a dread-locked half-caste, but has now had to acknowledge the full disaster of her Caucasian origins.
Although the novel focuses on the visual senses, it is the passages of acute olfactory observation, when a character's body odour is broken down to the last stale glass of wine and day-old dip in a bowl of hummus, which are most striking. And the ungrammatical description of Lyris's fear when Nathan enters her house stealthily, as uninvited as a mugger, will strike terror in the hearts of anyone who has ever spent a vulnerable night alone regretting the teenage years of horror-film apprenticeship: ‘Her heart thrashing about like a hooked fish: newsprint and television horror coursing through her brain while she sat paralysed, anticipating pain and even death: her body sprawled on the floor in a disorder of clothes.’
SOURCE: Brownrigg, Sylvia. “The Objects of Life.” Times Literary Supplement (5 March 1999): 22.
[In the following review, Brownrigg views Mackay as a talented short story writer and touches on the key thematic concerns of the stories in The World's Smallest Unicorn.]
A common, self-deprecating wisdom holds that the English (with the acknowledged exception of V. S. Pritchett) are not much good at short stories; that the nation has produced no master of the form with the calibre of Chekhov or Raymond Carver. A. S. Byatt went some way to correcting this gloomy picture in her rich anthology compiled for Oxford last year. There, she put forward a convincing argument that English writers have worked against the taut, “well-crafted” model of the short story. The best English stories, Byatt claimed, “pack together comedy and tragedy, farce and delicacy, elegance and the grotesque”.
This is an apt description of the work of Shena Mackay, who may be claimed for the Scots but who in her themes and settings is predominantly English, and increasingly metropolitan. (Born in Edinburgh, Mackay was brought up and educated in Kent.) Since the early 1980s, Mackay has produced several acclaimed collections of stories, pursuing the form with the same cool care and strange intensity she has brought to novels like Dunedin (1992) or The Orchard on Fire (1996). Her stories are dark, compelling excursions, and they cut with an edge that is distinctive to Mackay: an edge of humour and hostility that startles and unnerves, even as it amuses.
Some writers use the story collection strategically, to build a world: one reads through a volume of Raymond Carver or Alice Munro with an urgency based on the compulsion to understand a complete fictional environment. Mackay operates quite differently. There is unity neither in this collection as a whole, nor in each individual story. Mackay darts and dashes, sampling stark realism and gaudy fantasy; her narratives start and stop, and start again. She moves from Sheldon's Silver and Antiques in early 1960s Chancery Lane to a Home for Retired Clowns in Kent; from a lost expat returning from Hong Kong, to a hopeful publisher seeking romantic and literary salvation in Goa. Mackay's short fiction has been likened to a junk-shop window, and it is a fitting image; busy with objects, jewellery, clothes and an encyclopaedic range of plants, her stories are cluttered with material—with, to borrow Byatt's phrase on Sylvia Townsend Warner, the “thinginess of things”. Scotland appears briefly in a couple of stories—generally as a place people leave—but most are set in London. Within the capital itself, Mackay travels widely, taking in tree-sheltered terrace houses and a luxurious Sloane Square home; visiting club bores in the West End and well-off parents who reside in “one of those parts of London that thinks itself a village”. Mackay has a grim lyricism when conveying urban bleakness, and the south London in several stories is alive with a wonderful damp gloom. One of the collection's best stories, “The Index of Embarrassment”, has a gay nephew visiting his misanthropic uncle, whose great labour is compiling the index of the title, a comprehensive catalogue of song lyrics and clips, jokes and clichés. Uncle Bob experiences a malicious satisfaction at a neighbour's suicide in this bleary suburb, and his nephew tries to protect the grieving mother from Bob, whose “sharp nose would sniff out the loneliness masked by her rather shrill perfume”.
Mackay is frequently drawn to encounters between old and young. At her most sympathetic, she gently teases those on both sides of the generational divide, vividly chronicling the expat uncle's bewildered appreciation of his teenage nieces, a mother's jealousy of her son's Goth girlfriend, and, most movingly, the cross-generational encounter in “Trouser Ladies”, in which an ageing journalist, Beatrice, dines with the daughter of her dead best friend. (The younger lesbian has intuited Beatrice's lifelong passion for her own late mother, and that unspoken empathy warms their meal.) At Mackay's brittlest, the old become pathetic and the young merely predatory. In “The Day of the Gecko”. Allie, a publisher, takes her PA, Tasha, along to Goa on her wistful search for a vanished author, but she is wary of too-attractive Tasha: “to Allie, her face was like a cat's, who rubs against your legs while knowing there is a dead bird behind the sofa”.
A similar envy and suspicion undermine the relationship between the successful, lonely author, Andrea, and ambitious Lily, whom Andrea takes on as a protégée-cum-cleaner, after Lily's story fails to win a literary competition for which Andrea was a judge. Mackay has had to bear the burden of being a Whitbread and now a Booker judge, and so the comically weary tone she allows here is understandable, but it makes the conflict between the two women rather schematic. (Mackay gets considerable pleasure throughout the volume in penning imagined titles to bad literary productions, whether it's Andrea's remaindered Virago classic Mistletoe in a Dirty Glass or a gritty television play called Pigs and Spigots.) As in her last novel, The Artist's Widow (1998), Mackay occasionally chooses soft targets for her cultural satire. The smug couple in “Barbarians” run a Benetton-like children's clothing business, for whose catalogues they blithely encourage the children of their Asian workers to model. Here, Mackay's broad brush paints the loathsome father not just as a philanderer but also as an arch-capitalist who argues with his daughter about the minimum wage, and accuses his ailing son of looking “like some homeless layabout in a shop doorway begging for change”.
The book is scattered with examples of the lovely, precise prose for which Mackay is celebrated, as when two young boys wait in “the raw noon of a motherless, shapeless Saturday”. But there are moments when Mackay's eye fails her, producing a baffling description such as “the dark bobbles of the plane tree in the square where she lived were draggling like trimmings of frowsty curtains in a sky of mushroom soup”. Mackay shows subtle compassion when her imagination turns to troubled or less privileged characters, as is common in her earlier stories, but can also write with a detachment that keeps her tone quite cold. She shows an ease and confidence with this form. There may not be anything in this volume to match the smooth menace of Dreams of Dead Women's Handbags (1987), but there are elegance and delicacy, farce and tragedy, and colours and textures to awaken any alert reader's senses.
SOURCE: King, Francis. “Laughter and Tears.” Spectator 282, no. 8903 (27 March 1999): 36.
[In the following mixed review, King notes the humor and poignancy of the tales collected in The World's Smallest Unicorn.]
As one of the most gifted contenders in the literary Olympic games, Shena Mackay has always struck me as being a sparkish, spunky sprinter rather than a patient, persistent long-distance runner. Her novels may at first seem slight, sometimes even insubstantial; but their specific gravity is so high that long after one has read them they still leave a dense residue in one's mind. Even her shortest short stories can, like those of Jane Gardam, be usually relied on to tell one far more about the turbulent passions and twisted motives of her characters than many a jumbo of a novel by a writer less concise and adroit.
In this latest collection [The World's Smallest Unicorn], many of these characters belong to the world either of entertainment or of books. But in those worlds their positions are nearly always humble, even humiliating. In ‘Crossing the Border’, one of the funniest and most poignant of the stories (Mackay's stories are usually both those things), a feisty young woman pays a visit to the Grimaldi Home for Retired Clowns, where her great-uncle, his undistinguished career long over, has been incarcerated. Sadly, she arrives too late, death having already visited him before her. His sole bequest to her is a pair of clown's shoes.
In another story, full of alert observation, ‘The Last Sand Dance’, Zinnia, married to a once successful television writer whom no one now wishes to employ, is an actress with an ‘unreconstructedly West End glamour about her’, who has not appeared on a stage north of Wimbledon for many years. The jangling relationship between her and her husband is beautifully adumbrated, with a mixture of tenderness and mockery. Of another character Mackay writes that he ‘fantasised about being a pop star until an audition for New Faces smashed his dreams’. In her fiction, people's dreams, particularly if they are of fame, all too often get smashed.
In one of the two dud stories in the book, ‘Death by Art Deco’—its satire of the literary world too crude and unforgiving, its dénouement too mechanical—the theme is the relationship, at first affectionate and mutually supportive but eventually doomed to disillusion and destruction, between an established woman author (her last novel is a remaindered Virago Classic, Mistletoe in a Dirty Glass), whose life and work are both entering a decline, and a young would-be one, full of ardour and hope. In the far better ‘The Day of the Gecko’ the aging editorial director of a publishing house and her sexually adventurous young assistant travel to Goa in vain search of a vanished author. The accelerating friction between the two women is skillfully realised, as is the exotic setting; and there is the added bonus of the presence in the Da Silva Guest House, where the women are lodging, of two old troupers, Jonty and Jilly, who have achieved fame as irascible husband and long-suffering wife in a dozen indistinguishable sitcoms.
Children, wise beyond their years and therefore even more cynical than their parents, also figure prominently. In the splendid title story, a pair of twin girls cruelly exacerbate the sense of defeat and shame of a man who returns, his job with a Hong Kong firm called The Pink Panda Stationery Company abruptly terminated, to sponge off his brother and the sister-in-law whom, many years before, he nonchalantly seduced.
Even the less successful of the stories remain a joy to read because of the way in which the style now buffets one into attention and now caresses one into delight. ‘Trainers like two dead pigeons on the carpet’; ‘her roots growing out until her hair looked like burnt toast spread with margarine’; ‘an umbrella like an injured fruitbat’: such similes at first make one think ‘How ludicrous!’ and then, immediately afterwards, ‘How absolutely right!’
Mackay writes of one of her characters that she ‘saw eternity in a plastic flower’. It is her own special gift to see eternity in what to other, less perceptive, less humorous and less compassionate writers might merely seem to be rubbishy ephemera. Hers is a talent to cherish.
SOURCE: Hamilton, Ian. “Bohemian Rhapsodist.” Guardian (10 July 1999): 6.
[In the following essay, Hamilton traces Mackay's life and literary development.]
Shena Mackay has never been one for trendy self-promotion. Like Lyris, the neglected painter in her most recent novel, The Artist's Widow, Mackay would—on balance—rather be overlooked than vulgarly exposed. “A publicist's nightmare” is how her own publicists have now and then described her, and Mackay takes a certain pride in their exasperation.
Even today, with 10 highly-praised books in print (two, The Artist's Widow, and Dunedin, are out in Vintage paperback this month), and with a paean from Julie Burchill to amplify her blurbs (Burchill recently called her “the best writer in the world today”), Mackay cannot quite bring herself to bustle on the circuits.
As she told me recently: “I do think the whole climate for writers these days is so vulgar. It's all so money-led. I hate going into book shops and seeing, you know, the Top Ten Bestsellers, a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. I just find the whole thing so vulgar: the books pages, and the way writers are portrayed—snippets in diaries about so-and-so's advance. It all just creates a climate of anxiety for the majority of writers and gets them into the feeling that it's all a competition”.
A publicist's nightmare, to be sure, and yet Mackay, when she first started out, seemed quite the opposite. When I first heard of her, in the early 60s, she was being touted as the youngest and prettiest girl-novelist in town. She was featured in style sections of the tabloids, along with figures like Marianne Faithful, and seemed to be heading for a starring role in the about-to-happen youthquake. She had written her first novel when she was 16, we were told, and by 20 had clocked up quite a few foam-flecked reviews: “Macabre, zany, scoffingly droll, sadly beautiful, wildly funny, glitteringly stylish—and quite brilliant … She stands on her own—an original and a very hot property”. And that was just the Daily Mail.
As for the prettiness—this too was the stuff of dazed hyperbole. A poet friend of mine, who can't be named, remembers meeting Mackay at a mid-60s literary festival: “A vision of blonde, schoolgirl loveliness”, he says, “but sexy and flirtatious too. You should have seen those corduroyed belletrists swoon whenever she timidly sashayed into the hotel bar. They all wanted to, well, protect her, advise her, and so on—and in spite of the deadpan wit with which she kept them all at bay, she did somehow seem to need protecting. Let's just say that she was the kind of novelist who didn't really need to write another novel.”
Mackay did write other novels, though, and in many of them the lustful male is skewered with brutal finesse. Her early novels in particular are full of bristly predators, and we are spared none of the repulsive details: the starings and the gropings, the bad breath, the drunken bullshit, the love-talk that turns nasty when our heroine sees through it, and so on.
I asked Mackay the other day if she had ever invented an admirable male character. The question seemed to take her by surprise, and in the end she came up with Stanley in A Bowl of Cherries: a wan and ineffectual bedsit loser. “And what's so terrific about Stanley?” “Well, he's nice to children”, she replied.
Shena Mackay (nee Mackey) was born in Edinburgh in 1944, on D-Day. Her father was in the army; her mother was training to be a teacher. They had met as students at St Andrews University. He was the son of a headmaster; she the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, and according to Mackay the marriage was a “genuine love-match”. After the war, the family moved to England, at first to Hampstead (where, for a time, they lived next door to the Saatchis; little Charles, says Mackay, would now and then come crawling through their hedge) and later, via various London locations, to the village of Shoreham in Kent.
Benjamin Mackey, Shena's father, had problems “settling down” after the war, not least because he seems to have been the victim of a somewhat volatile Scottish temper. He took a succession of short-term jobs, ranging from coal-miner to ship's purser. There were frequent parental absences: not all of these unwelcome to Shena and her two sisters. Nor, maybe, to their mother.
Mrs Mackey was steadfast, intrepid and self-sacrificing. During the family's eight years in Shoreham, the years of Shena's growing up, it was the mother who kept everything together. Although of an arty disposition, counting as friends many poets and painters of the day, she was also a rigorously conscientious coper. According to Valerie Foster, a childhood friend, the Mackey girls were always “stylishly turned out”, although the family was invariably short of cash.
Certainly it was from her mother that Mackay picked up several habits and interests that would stay with her later on: her vegetarianism, her interest in modern painting, her passion for wild flowers. “My mother made us learn the names of all the flowers in Kent”, she says, and there is no book of hers, I think, that does not contain at least one flourish of botanical expertise. Mackay's mother also encouraged her to read. “Shena was always, always reading”, says her sister Frances, and Foster remembers her friend poring over Sherlock Holmes and Billy Bunter.
Mackay herself recalls her mother scolding her, along the lines of “A big girl of eight and you haven't read Crime and Punishment!” But the scolding is remembered with intense affection: “I adored my mother”, Mackay says today, “I got all sorts of values from her. She was a trouper, if you like, and lots of fun. But she had very high standards. We were brought up with quite liberal values but with a Presbyterian moral codes as well”.
Mrs Mackey made sure that her daughters attended the village church and that they went to Sunday school. Mackay sang in the church choir, and although Foster recalls a few moments of Sunday irreverence, Mackay always remembered the words of all the hymns, and has worked quite a few of them into her books.
These childhood years left a deep imprint, to be sure, and Foster remembers them as an “enchanted” time. Mackay, she recalls, was always the mischievous tomboy, forever embarking on escapades and getting into scrapes. “She was always more daring than I was. She liked danger and even then she had a macabre sense of humour.” At Tonbridge Grammar School, the two girls were co-conspirators—mocking the teachers, playing truant and so on—but Mackay (brilliant at English, bad at maths) always came out top of the detentions league. And she had begun writing poems and short stories: dark, horrid stuff, apparently, with lots of gratuitously sudden deaths (which also feature fairly often in her adult work). Even in these early, schoolgirl years, Valerie Foster was in no doubt that her naughty little friend would one day be “a very well-known writer”.
Mackay's Shoreham childhood features repeatedly in her grown-up writings and is still looked back on with a sense of loss. In some ways, all of her novels and short stories, whatever their actual settings, can seem like attempts to reclaim the sharply circumscribed intensities of village life. She is celebrated now as “the tenth muse of suburbia”, “the supreme lyricist of daily grot”, but her beady-eyed dissections of the London suburb always seem guided by what one might call a villager's sensibility.
She is always on the lookout for oddballs and eccentrics, for tiny gaffes and small-scale self-delusions, and even when she is at her most caustically satirical there is usually an elegiac undertone. She has a wonderfully good ear for bus-stop dialogue (“for reasons best known to themselves”; “it's the children I feel sorry for”) and she always wants to know what's going on behind the counter at the corner shop.
Unglamorous community endeavours—flower shows, amateur dramatics, church socials, and the like—always bring out the mordant best in her writing. She has on the whole been happier with close-ups than long-shots. At the same time, the village schoolgirl was, from early on, enticed by the idea of the metropolis. She had observed her mother's arty visitors and friends—the poet W S Graham and the painter Glyn Collins seem to have been regulars—and she nurtured adolescent fantasies of the artistic London life.
In 1960, she edged a step closer to metropolitan Bohemia. Her parents moved to Blackheath in south east London, and the children were switched from Tonbridge Grammar to Kidbrooke comprehensive, which Mackay hated from the start.
Kidbrooke does seem to have transformed her from a mischievous rural tomboy into a trainee urban-disaffiliate. She began to put on beatnik airs, failed most of her O levels, listened to Radio Luxemburg and got herself an art-student boyfriend, with whom she enjoyed exciting weekend trysts in Soho. On schooldays, she and a friend would sometimes bunk off to the big city, encountering predators everywhere.
By this stage, she was reading Catcher in the Rye and On the Road, classic truant texts, and there were few pop songs that she hadn't learned by heart. Mackay spent one restless year at Kidbrooke before announcing, at 16, that she wanted to leave school. She won a £25 prize in a Daily Mirror poetry competition—“Windscattered little bones of birds / Lie on this fallow field”—and began to see herself as thoroughly committed to the writing life.
She applied for jobs in London and eventually landed a quite good one which, as things transpired, would change her life. “Girl Wanted for Antiques Shop. Easy Hours. Good Wages.” The antique shop was in London's Chancery Lane and it was one of a pair owned by the parents of the art critic David Sylvester. One of the two shops sold antiques (jewellery, porcelain, etc) and the other specialised in silver. Mackay's job was in the silver shop, which was managed by the soon-to-be famous playwright Frank Marcus (his hit play, The Killing of Sister George, is not at all, says Mackay, based on her).
Marcus, now dead, was married to the Sylvesters' daughter, Jackie. In no time at all, it appears, Mackay had the Sylvester household at her feet. Marcus helped her to get moving as a writer, by introducing her to publishers and agents, and David Sylvester began to escort her to art galleries and Soho drinking clubs. Mackay became a Colony Room regular (even the notoriously misanthropic Muriel, the Colony's grande dame, seem to have quite liked her), and with a shuddering heart found herself getting introduced to legendary art-world figures like Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Francis Bacon: “Francis could be vicious but he never was to me”.
And nor was anybody else, so it would seem. Before long there was scarcely a big-name painter in England with whom Mackay was not on friendly terms: “David took me to galleries, openings, parties, painters' houses and studios and introduced me to the greatest British and American artists of the day, and to the Australians Sidney Nolan and Brett Whiteley. We visited Henry Moore at Much Hadham and had tea and whisky in bone china cups with David Hockney in Powis Square. I had the great privilege of meeting Giacometti not long before he died. He was gracious and kind, his noble lined face weary beneath his grizzled hair.”
All this was a far cry from Blackheath, where her parents' marriage had gone into terminal decline. Worse still, Mackay's mother had become seriously ill, with rheumatoid arthritis. With both parents out of action, so to speak, the anxious Mackay (who might otherwise have been pressed to sign up at some university or college) was free to immerse herself in the Marcus/Sylvester world of publishers and painters. She took a flat-share in Earls Court and for a period drank deeply at the well of urban dereliction.
In Earls Court in the early 1960s she has said low life ran parallel to, and sometimes encroached on, backpackers' paradise; corruption coexisted with the conventions. And this, for Mackay was the perfect mix: Bohemia meets Presbyteria. Her Earls Court experience coincided with the publication of her first work of fiction—two novellas, published in one volume by Andre Deutsch in 1964—and she soon had enough money (just about) to enable her to give up her full-time job at the antique shop.
Music Upstairs (1965) her second book, was a witty and candidly bisexual romp around the sleaze-spots of Earls Court, and Old Crow, two years later, was a murky and staccato rendering of rustic angst: surreal lyricism combined with a high body-count is how she now describes. it. In these early books Mackay's gift for the killing simile and the surprising, spot-on image was splendidly in evidence. The plotting was half-hearted and oblique and some of the characters were caricatures, but line by line the writing had a studied and altogether individual brilliance.
Quite clearly, hers was an authentic talent. At the age of 22, she was a presence to be reckoned with. “People often remark,” she says “that it must have been exciting to be published so young, and it was, but it was also terrifying. I was both blase and shy, and I was entering an entirely new world, with holes in my shoes, and, as often as not, a dog in tow.”
In the early 1960s she recalls, all books by young persons were treated in the papers as dispatches from frontline Swinging London. She was regularly interrogated on matters youthful by magazines and TV shows. Her opinion, she says was sought on everything from the Beatles to reasons why a pretty girl should waste her time on writing novels. And she was certainly not getting rich. In spite of a small subsidy from Andre Deutsch, she still had to look for part time jobs: “I was a model for classes taught by gruff, white-bearded Chelsea artists, and a shop assistant for a morning at Chic of Hampstead—I fled at lunchtime because I could not fold cashmere sweaters—and I worked at a greetings card warehouse where we had the perfect line-up for a sitcom along the lines of Are You Being Served?”
In 1964, Mackay got married, to a boyfriend she had left behind in Blackheath. Robin Brown was an engineering student and not in the least literary, indeed, those kind of people, made him nervous. “But I married him for love, and we had many happy times together.”
Three daughters followed, and one further novel, The Advent Calendar, published in 1971. Then came what critics have described as Mackay's doldrum years, from 1971 until 1983, the year of her next publication. Doldrum they may have been for admirers of her work, but for the author herself these were the years of young motherhood and marriage, and pretty busy years at that. “Maybe I was exhausted,” she suggests, “I didn't have much time. I was running a big house. My mother was unwell. We took in lodgers. And there were three children to bring up.”
As a mother, Mackay is extolled by her friends as wonderfully conscientious. “She always made sure they had their name tags sewed on,” was just one of many accolades. In 1972 she and Robin moved the family from East Finchley to Brockham, a village in Surrey where Mackay perhaps hoped to give her daughters a taste of her own enchanted childhood, and thence to Reigate, scene of several of her subsequent suburban tales.
During the 1970s, though, her marriage began to falter. David Sylvester had reappeared (indeed, he is the father of her youngest daughter, Cecily Brown, now a highly thought of artist who recently sold a painting to the Tate Gallery). Why didn't she go off with Sylvester? “When it came to the point neither of us could do it. I couldn't do it to my children and he couldn't do it to his. We would probably have driven each other mad very quickly.”
During the so-called “doldrum years” Mackay continued writing—several of her most incisive and merciless short stories belong to this period—but found it hard to get to grips with anything large-scale. One novel, The Firefly Motel, was completed, then abandoned, although some of it was salvaged for A Bowl of Cherries, her next full length work, which was submitted to Jonathan Cape, with whom she had a contract.
Cape turned it down. Approaching her forties, Mackay found herself without a publisher, a dispiriting situation, considering her early triumphs, and all the more galling, maybe, because with this new book she had made a conscious effort to move beyond the disjointed lyricism of her first three novels. She wanted, she says, more narrative straightforwardness, more explanation.
It was around this time that she met Brigid Brophy, then a highly prominent figure on the literary scene. Over the ensuing years, Brophy would become one of Mackay's closest friends. In 1982, her help was crucial. She read A Bowl of Cherries in manuscript, liked it a lot (she had already admiringly reviewed some of Mackay's early work) and passed it on to Iris Murdoch who in turn recommended it to a small publisher, the Harvester Press.
Harvester published the book in 1984, to excellent reviews. Shena Mackay's barren years—“barren, indeed” she says—were over. In 1984, she turned 40, her children were getting ready to leave home, she was finally divorced (in 1982), and she was enjoying a second wave of recognition. Her life had become simpler in some ways but, as she points out, it was not quite a bowl of cherries. She had to support herself with part-time work at Reigate Library, her mother was still seriously ill and needed much attention (she would die in 1993) and Brigid Brophy was also in poor health (she died in 1995), and there were other turbulences too, some of them to do with drink.
On this topic, Mackay is undeniably reluctant to hold forth, but she does admit to having suffered from a “genetic predisposition to use drink as an anaesthetic against anxiety and depression. To deny it would be to deny the wonderful people who have helped me … I wouldn't be the artist I am if I didn't know about the dark side of life and the dark night of the soul.”
Nowadays, Mackay doesn't touch a drop, but it has not been easy. It obviously pains Shena Mackay to talk about such matters, just as it pains her to be quizzed about her sometimes close relationships with other women. She loathes the word “bisexual” and visibly winces when the subject is touched on. “If you love someone”, she says, “it doesn't matter what sex they are. I go along with Keats in being certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart's affections and the truth of the imagination.” And it would be a vulgar inquisitor, indeed, who could insist on pressing for more details.
For a shy person, Diet Coke is not a great loosener of tongues. For her, though, the correct place for eloquence is on the page, and over the last decade she has been eloquent indeed. Since 1984, there have been four novels and three volumes of short stories. There has also been some progress in the marketplace, her 1996 novel: The Orchard on Fire, was short-listed for the Booker Prize and paperback sales are heading for six figures.
Mackay despises book-hype but on the other hand she has no wish to be marked down as merely “quirky” or “stylishly off-beat”. Her mother used to warn her, in jest: “Please don't end up like Jean Rhys”—by which she meant “neglected and admired”. Perhaps Mackay's fictions are still more likely to be valued for their brilliant detail than for their narrative excitements. When I asked a few of her admirers to nominate the features of her writing that they most admired, nearly all of them remembered similes, plane trees in the sunshine looking like giraffes, the flames of a gas fire like lupins, a collapsed umbrella like an injured fruitbat, and so on. Or they mentioned her sly, semi-private jokes.
For myself, I always chuckle when I recall one of her characters attempting to quote Yeats: “The falcon cannot bear the falconer”, he says. “That's not a misprint, is it?” I once asked her: “What do you think?” she replied. (The “bear” in case you don't know, should be “hear”).
It is not common for compulsively “visual” writers to be good at telling stories; they are always dawdling so that they can take a closer look. But with recent novels like Dunedin and The Orchard on Fire, Mackay does seem to have been trying for a new structural surefootedness. And she is nicer to her characters these days, although, it must be said, she's still not very nice to them. As one of her admirers pointed out to me the other day: “Mackay simply does not know that she is being cruel to people in her books. She says that she means them to be sympathetic”. And this does seem to be the case. When I put it to Mackay that the pervert Greenidge in The Orchard on Fire is a triumph in sheer loathsomeness, she looked seriously troubled. Apparently we are meant to feel sorry for this child-seducing wretch.
But then feeling sorry for people—and feeling sorry for flowers, animals, insects and sometimes the whole planet—seems to be ingrained in Mackay's nature. “I can't see a distressed pigeon in the street without wanting to look after it”, she says. “And if I come across a snail on a pavement, I have to move it to a safer place, where it won't be trodden on.” Does all this make her better than the rest of us? “Oh no, not at all. I wish I didn't feel like this. It's sometimes a real nuisance, an affliction.”
A new Mackay novel will be finished by the end of the year, she tells me, but that's all she wants to tell. Her life now is industrious and calm. She has a circle of devoted and protective friends, not all of them literary, and she has what she calls “a huge extended family”, including two grandchildren, on whom she evidently dotes. She sits on committees (she is a Booker Prize judge this year), supports environmental causes, is indignant about Nato and her favourite politician is Tony Benn.
“You can say that I live quietly in south London with my cats,” she says. But what about the old days? Has the Bohemian been altogether vanquished by the Presbyterian? She smiles what I take to be an enigmatic smile. “There's a wonderful play by Rodney Ackland”, she says. “It's called The Pink Room [later renamed Absolute Hell] and it's set in a club rather like the old Colony Room. The production I saw a few years ago ended with Judi Dench, who played the club owner, alone on the stage. The club is closing down. It has to, for some reason. And Judi Dench's last despairing cry is: ‘Where are the pink lights? For God's sake let's have the pink lights on!’ There's still part of me that wants the pink lights, the vie en rose, the artifice, the tawdry glamour. Outside is the cruel daylight and all that. But most of me doesn't want that. Most of me wants to live in the country, really.”
SOURCE: Croft, Barbara. “Tangled Tales.” Women's Review of Books 18, no. 8 (May 2001): 21-2.
[In the following review, Croft contends that the stories in The World's Smallest Unicorn are “unique, bittersweet stories, full of fun but far from light reading.”]
The stories of Scottish author Shena Mackay [in The World's Smallest Unicorn] are a lot more cheerful, but she too has an eye for the bizarre: an old folks home for retired clowns, a world traveler who ingests historic monuments, an eccentric old man's catalogue of life's embarrassments, an aging theatrical couple who act out the subtle jealousies of the film A Star Is Born.
Mackay, who has written a number of novels, including The Orchard on Fire and, more recently, The Artist's Widow, draws deliciously eccentric characters—Uncle Bob in “The Index of Embarrassment,” for example, who believes “that soap and water destroy the skin's essential oils,” and Tusker Laidlaw, the official Bore of the Wilderness Club. Several are involved in writing: an aspiring young novelist, a journalist in disguise on a secret assignment, a young woman setting out to write the biography of her famous uncle, an editor eager to reprint the works of an aging, reclusive author. Their efforts to communicate, however, never quite succeed, and the stories are full of misunderstandings and misapplied blame. Characters say the wrong thing, twist the truth; they lie. They lash out at one another, hurling insults they don't really mean. An incident fraught with significance for one person is hardly remembered by another. Some are haunted by words that have never been spoken.
Ghosts drift through these stories, old grievances, unfulfilled longings. Teddy, for example, a melancholy expatriate who has returned from Hong Kong to an unwelcoming family and a London he hardly recognizes, feels like a gweilo (Chinese for ghost) and longs to see “the world's smallest unicorn”—a bit of magic advertised in a circus poster. Beatrice in “Trouser Ladies” broods for years over an ill-conceived visit to the family of an old friend, the secret love of her life.
Mackay doesn't indulge her characters' sorrows. Instead she embeds their tragedies in a wild and witty web of slang, puns, jokes, song cues and brand names. References to pop culture abound, and the stories sizzle with fast-paced flip dialogue. Like the fiction of the aspiring writer in “Death by Art Deco,” Mackay's densely textured stories are “gaudily painted, glittering and flamboyant.”
The sense of melancholy in “Trouser Ladies” and “The World's Smallest Unicorn” is balanced by other stories that are freewheeling comedies. These seem to race forward, freely shifting point of view and offering delightful glimpses of the characters' backgrounds in passing, often with just a convoluted, one-sentence sketch: “Janet Richards, who worked as a home help, blamed Lily's father, a telephone engineer who had fantasized about being a pop star until an audition for New Faces smashed his dreams, for not having backed her up in her bid to persuade Lily to go to college.” The pace never slows in these stories. It's just one damn thing after another: “My father was a second violinist. He was run over by a taxi while nipping out for an interval drink, and it was a struggle for my mother to provide for us. We were always keeping up appearances.”
But, despite the incredible complications Mackay piles up for her characters, the collection is light on story. In “A Silver Summer,” a young shop girl, Tessa, meets the boy of her dreams, only to lose him when another boy, who has been making unwanted advances, tells him lies about her character. Tessa vows revenge. End of story. In “Death by Art Deco,” a young would-be writer becomes the personal assistant to a famous woman novelist. The junior writer worships her boss and mentor, but manages, through a complicated psychological tangle, to get on her bad side. Eventually, she's fired.
There's little sense of movement. The characters don't change. What makes this book a delightful read is not the narrative line, but the writing itself. Mackay's prose sparkles with precise and beautifully worded observations, often mingling the poetic and the mundane. Here, for example, she pinpoints a precise shade of turquoise: “True turquoise, not peacock blue or eau-de-nil or aquamarine or the debased hues of lacy bedjackets and babies' cardigans and velour leisure-suits that call themselves turquoise, but the vibrant stone of scarab and torque and misshapen ancient beads and Islamic glaze.” Always, the description mirrors the character, as for example when she shows us an elegant older woman's worn embroidered silk kimono, “faded from peacock to azure and worn to patches of gossamer grids and loose hammocks of threads slung between blossoms and birds.”
Ultimately, though, it is character that anchors fiction, and Mackay's people are wonderfully human. They delight and frequently move us, but we never pity even the most tragic of them because, however sad their circumstances, they have a wry sort of wisdom. These are unique, bittersweet stories, full of fun but far from light reading.
SOURCE: Hensher, Philip. “Radiance in Suburbia.” Spectator 291, no. 9107 (22 February 2003): 35-6.
[In the following review, Hensher assesses Mackay's literary accomplishment and asserts that Heligoland “has a deceptive simplicity which conceals great art, and it manages to convey a big emotional journey in a relatively brief span.”]
Shena Mackay has had a difficult and unconventional career, and it has taken a long time for most readers to register what a powerful and original novelist she is. Several things have counted, unfairly, against her: her subjects are not just domestic, but often suburban, which she presents with a disconcerting rapture. She does not write long books, nor polemical ones; it is hard to say what any given novel by her is ‘about’, although various fiercely held convictions may, from time to time, be discerned. They are primarily about human beings living their lives, rendered with increasing mastery and a hard-won truth; and there is nothing harder in the world to defend than that. In her prime, she reminds me sometimes of a very different novelist, Elizabeth Taylor; both have a rare gift of making their characters interesting whether their acts and situations are objectively so or not. She can make you watch a girl walking up a country road with nothing much at the end of it; and that takes some skill.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty for the conventionally minded critic is that her career has followed an unusual path. She was a child prodigy among novelists, and her very early novels, written in her teens, such as Music Upstairs and Toddler on the Run—my favourite of all her titles—are flip, brilliant miniatures out of the school of Brigid Brophy. They are wonderfully funny and effortless, but tiny and short-breathed; and then she fell suddenly silent. When she started to publish again, some years later, her style had broadened and deepened, and become much less easy to classify. The glorious, glamorous Redhill Rococo and A Bowl of Cherries were like nothing else being written at the time; their mood must have been hard to catch, and they were often either misread as satires or dismissed by metropolitan readers as naive books about suburban people.
She has been patient, and taught us how to read her books, and slowly we have caught up with her. What were always beautiful books have become steadily more expert, and now she is generally acknowledged as a unique voice of exceptional confidence and range. She has always been greatly loved by her readership; with the increasing accomplishment of her recent novels, The Orchard on Fire,The Artist's Widow and, especially, Heligoland, there can be no excuse for not taking her seriously.
Her books give the impression of great generosity. Certainly, she is a writer who finds ecstatic delight in mundane things, and there are loving descriptions of bright plastic hair-clips, cheap sweets and gaudy, suburban flower-beds. There is no irony in any of this; she is capable of loving them as Iris Murdoch could love a rock. She believes fervently that the world is full of beauty, and the aesthetic pleasures of the uneducated taste are as profoundly experienced as those of the learned. Indeed, her novels, and, particularly, many of her short stories come from a belief that the life of, say, a girl growing up in the suburbs is richer in wonder and beauty than the lives of sophisticated aesthetes. A simple person will respond ecstatically to ordinary objects, to birds, flowers, angel fish in a pet shop, even a neon sign; a sophisticated one will save his delight for museums, and his life has less beauty in it.
Her world is full of objects, lovingly assembled in massive, exact lists; she loves gardens—The Orchard on Fire, her most rapturous book, is full of precise renderings of plants and flowers—but they melt, very often, into similarly ecstatic accounts of broken toys or cheap jewellery. Many of her boldest effects come simply from an observation of colour; the moment at the end of the first chapter of The Artist's Widow when Lyris, returning from an exhausting and depressing party, sits down in her painter's chair and ‘squeezes out a bead of aquamarine’. Her ability to see spiritual beauty everywhere is almost Japanese; in particular, her excellent short stories often start from physical facts, such as a tank of tropical fish, and then construct lives around them. In A Bowl of Cherries, the lavish evocation of a ratty old novelty shop produces a rhapsody:
Heaps of glittering excelsior, red, green, gold, blue, silver foil trumpets, feathered squeakers, paper fans, black eye-masks and animal faces, a skull, peashooters, magic daggers, tricks, jokes, little silk chinese drums, paper accordions, flutes, indoor fireworks, joss sticks, balloons, spangles, sparklers, sequins; gimcrack gewgaws, evanescent glitter.
Here, there is no overt judgment until the very end of the list, and then the word ‘gimcrack’ is austerely set apart from the rapture with a semi-colon, as if it is quite a different voice from her own. Her interests are very appealing; I adore the girls' schools episodes in so many of her books, from Dust Falls on Eugene Schlumberger onwards; they are much like the first chapter of Iris Murdoch's The Flight from the Enchanter, a vein Murdoch ought to have pursued. She has, too, the precision of an Opie in her recall of playground chants, and a jolly schoolgirl taste for the really silly joke which is always irresistible—the sign at the beginning of Redhill Rococo which reads ‘Redhill Exhausts and Tyres’, or the character in The Artist's Widow who observes that a girl called Paige ‘sounds like something from a book’. Her novels are full of happy, relieved journeys towards home, with a tart and unindulgent nostalgia, and exist in a densely evoked physical world.
They seem, in recollection, like infinitely generous books; it is surprising to see that, in reality, she makes uncompromising judgments. Again like Murdoch, she likes and closely observes animals; butchers and people affecting to dislike cats are given a rough ride. (She once gave me a very hard time when I was rude about a cat in a novel; I'm not sure I've ever been entirely forgiven.) That's probably just a foible, but a more interesting judgment is a recurrent one on artistic dabblers. Nathan in The Artist's Widow or Jaz in The Orchard on Fire come off particularly badly.
Perhaps this is because Mackay herself is a writer who takes her art very seriously, and who sets herself challenges with each book. As a result, she has grown steadily in authority. A Bowl of Cherries is a deliberate attempt to write more expansively than the clipped, witty style of Music Upstairs; the characters talk, not always quite successfully, as if they have been let off the leash, rather than in a sequence of bons mots.Dunedin, the most varied of her books, is an attempt at a more complicated structure than before; dazzling as it is, the experiment doesn't quite come off. But a novelist who never risks anything is not a novelist worth reading, and the experience of Dunedin went into the intricately patterned, but immensely satisfying The Orchard on Fire, one of the best novels of the 1990s. It is the book of hers where everything seems to come together effortlessly.
Heligoland has a deceptive simplicity which conceals great art, and it manages to convey a big emotional journey in a relatively brief span. It is set in an idealistic urban community, a 1930s experiment in communal living which is still staggering on decades later. In the Nautilus building, a motley collection of aging architects, poets, artists rub along somehow, their grand friends and sorry hangers-on popping in from time to time.
The description of the atmosphere of such a place, the crabby utopianism struggling on in the middle of a philistine and cynical world, is a delight, and the novel is full of brilliant, sharp character sketches—the cast of The Artist's Widow reappears here, seen from a slightly colder angle. Both dreamily speculative and physically precise, the book has a tone and flavour uniquely Mackay's own. At the core of the novel is a profoundly moving study of loneliness, in the central figure of Rowena Snow. She is one of Mackay's uprooted and uncertain heroines; her life has followed no clear path, and at each stage she seems baffled by her own circumstances. From a terrible progressive boarding school, working as a home-help, to her strange and not quite established place at the Nautilus, half cleaner, half patient muse, she has had consistent bad luck and consistent isolation.
It is an extremely sad story, utterly plausible in the gruesome details—the ‘advanced’ school is appallingly enjoyable—but it ends in consolation and optimism, as Rowena starts to see that she might, after all, be able to enjoy a birthday party she never had and thought she never wanted. By then, we are mildly surprised to discover how much we want her to be happy, and in the end she almost is. ‘Rowena doesn't know how to have birthday parties, but suddenly it all seems to be going quite well.’ In Mackay's world, that counts as an epiphany, and if there is a constant conviction in her books that most people worry that they don't know ‘how to do it’, nevertheless, despite everything, in the end things seem to ‘go quite well’. It is a modest sounding triumph, but in the event a deeply moving one, and, like the best of her books, this one concludes in the atmosphere of a long-anticipated quiet homecoming.
SOURCE: Bradshaw, Peter. “Muddling Through.” Guardian (1 March 2003): 26.
[In the following review, Bradshaw lauds as gorgeous the prose of Heligoland.]
Shena Mackay's elegant, elusive new book [Heligoland] sketches out the circumstances of marginal and defeated lives in what are almost short stories, loosely threaded like beads on a string. Her theme is elderly or middle-aged people living fretfully in genteel obscurity, but doing so in such a way that they seem like bright, observant but powerless children. This is drawn so playfully and so compassionately—and with such consistently beautiful writing—that the experience is mysteriously comic and sweet.
The venue is the Nautilus, an eccentric house designed in the 1930s which resembles a seashell and whose rooms look like a shell's chambers. Set amid heavy gravel in which an anchor and chain have been whimsically placed, it seems as if the house should be on a seashore, but it is in fact in the London suburbs. This was established as the location of a Bloomsbury-ish bohemian community of yore, with lavish bar, magnificent library and a printing press long since fallen into disuse.
It now houses just two of its elderly pioneers. Francis Campion is a querulous minor poet, worrying away at slights and glancing condescensions in various biographies and literary histories; Celeste Zylberstein is of Jewish and central European extraction, the widow of Arkady, another man of letters. New tenant Gus Crabb, an antiques dealer of faintly roguish mien who has moved into the Nautilus having just been left by his wife and children, is quite without these literary credentials. And the heroine is Rowena Snow, who applies for the post of housekeeper at the Nautilus: an Asian woman brought up as an orphan in an ecstatically remembered arcadia of remote Scotland, then unhappily sent south to an experimental boarding school called Chestnuts before drifting into ill-paid work in the caring professions.
This is a world of people who listen to Radio 4 last thing at night: who drift off to sleep to “Sailing By” and then, as often as not, get jerked sharply awake by “Lillibulero” at two in the morning as the station makes way for the World Service. The Heligoland of the title is an island off the German coast that used to be mentioned in the incantation of the shipping forecast but is now omitted, and which Rowena's childish self—a self that bleeds into her adult persona—fantasises as a promised land of happiness.
That Radio 4 trope is part of the book's intense and exotic Englishness, and its delicate, pre-modern feel. This is a book in which drum and bass can be heard thudding from young people's cars, but these novelties do not impinge greatly on a world in which people unselfconsciously refer to “the wireless”. Celeste's Jewish mannerisms and Yiddish phrases are effortlessly subsumed into the Anglo-Saxon mix, and it is difficult to remember that Rowena is of a different ethnic group from everyone else. Apart from one possibly racially motivated incident, in which a crowd of yobs throw an egg at her from a car, it does not register as a very important factor. Like the black African character in The Archers whose colour was never remarked upon, Rowena does not seem alienated from the rest of the cast, or at least no more than they all are from each other.
The driving force at the centre of this book is not really the narrative, because the impetus that that provides is pretty low: nothing very much happens, and the story is always turning left, right and backwards into diverting sidestreets and culs-de-sac. (Bafflingly, one very important event, the husband of an old friend falling in love with Rowena, gets only a brief mention.) It is Mackay's gorgeous prose that does the work, along with the seductive, sad and hilarious vignettes that she conjures up, sequences and setpieces that are often themselves in a subordinate position to the flashbacks appended to the main narrative.
The writing is superb, and of that unassuming, un-worked-up kind that comes only from an author whose gentle mastery of language is quite beyond showy displays of technique. There are too many felicities to cite here, but the description of the snowy scene at the book's beginning is wonderfully achieved, while there are laugh-out-loud descriptions of Mrs Diggins, the cantankerous cook at Rowena's old school, who has a face like a “cruel spoon”, and a preposterous boho couple who hope to persuade Francis to get their execrable dramatic monologues performed on the radio.
Heligoland can be a bemusing book in some ways: we see glimpses of lives, fragments and shards, rather than amply delineated, rounded existences. But the peripheral nature of all this is precisely the point: these are vulnerable people in the evening of lives of which they have no clear view, living in a muddle, and muddling through. It is this partial victory on which Mackay bestows her gentle, lenient and generous imagination.