by A L Kennedy
Jonathan Cape, 2009 hardback
Awards: shortlisted, 2010 Scottish Book awards
A L Kennedy is the author of five novels, two books of non-fiction and five collections of short stories. Her most recent book, Day, was the 2007 Costa Book of the Year.
She has twice been selected as one of Granta's Best of Young British
Novelists and has won many prizes including the Lanna Literary award,
the Austrian State Prize for European Literature, the Somerset Maugham
Award and the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year award. She lives in
Glasgow and is a part-time lecturer in creative writing at Warwick
with A L Kennedy
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reaches me and he says what might be expected - 'Scuse me cunyou spare
twenny pence furra cupp tea?' And I turn to him with my bleeding mouth
and my lazy eye and my dodgy arm and my swollen tongue and I say, 'I
don no. Havin a biddofa bad day myself.'
So he gave me twenty pence.
And a slightly used sweet.
And a kiss."
Reviewed by Tania Hershman
If I were to prescribe short stories as a curative - which I very well
might! - then the instruction accompany A L Kennedy's fifth short story
collection, What Becomes, would
No more than one a day, after food.
Don't misunderstand me; this is not because these stories are horrific
or shocking. If I were to attempt a blurb-like precis you would wonder
what I was getting worked up about. But these stories have many layers,
and their effect resonates such that I needed to put the book down
after each one, to let it sink in, to contemplate what I had just been
through. Because reading Kennedy's writing is to go through something.
Exceed the stated dose at your own
As in her award-winning novel, Day
- the only book for many years which has resurrected in me the childish
behaviour of reading late into the night because I just couldn't stop -
with this, her ninth work of fiction, it is obvious that this is an
experienced and confident writer who is not afraid to experiment, with
language, voice, page layout. Nothing is tentative; this is a writer
with almost perfect control.
After my first read-through, I wondered about the title, What Becomes,
also the title of the first story, and the intriguing black and white
cover photograph of a girl in an old-fashioned dress hugging a large
glitterball in front of her face. I decided that since it doesn't have
a question mark, perhaps it is the beginning of a sentence. Maybe even
from the 60s song, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted, I
thought, and on second read, I saw every character in these twelve
stories as brokenhearted in some way. Whether this is "correct" or not
doesn't matter, each reader reads themselves into a story.
Kennedy begins not at the beginning in a traditional sense, as another,
less confident, writer might. For example, the first story, What Becomes,
has the main character in a cinema, alone, waiting for the film to
start. it is Kennedy's choice of words which immediately creates an
atmosphere. The opening paragraph talks of the empty cinema screen as
"a kind of hanging absence" and on the second page, the small room "put
Frank in mind of a bus, some kind of wide slow vehicle, sliding off
towards destinations it left undisclosed." These instilled in me a
vague and intriguing sense of impending threat.
A few pages later, we leave Frank sitting in the cinema, the film still
unshown, and Kennedy takes us back to the central "inciting" incident.
This is a highly original, bizarre and disturbing scene between Frank
and his wife, which sums up all the hazards of a relationship: the
uncrossable space between two people, the talking about mundane
subjects such as dinner time as stand-ins for unbearably large disappointments.
'What the fuck are you doing?'
As the story unfolds, there is just enough said for us to understand.
The film, when it finally begins, isn't as
it should be, so that even the cinema has become an unsafe,
unpredictable place, and this serves to enrich the astonishing pain of
Frank's situation. The ending left me
He'd smiled again, which meant that he might have seemed sad for
second or two before, 'I know, but nine isn't too late .' He needed to
apologise and uncover how she was feeling - that would help their
evening go well. Time spent paying attention to people is never wasted.
Frank travels for his work and Kennedy often displaces her characters
in this way. There are frequent mentions of
dust in these stories: a
substance that sticks to you as you travel; a
substance you leave your mark in when you go.
Wasps is about those left behind - a mother
and two young sons - by the travelling
father. in Edinburgh, a man
falls in love with a woman who works in one city and lives in another.
She explains: "I have a good job here, a good flat there. Not good as
if they're impressive, or anything, just good because I like them." Confectioner's Gold has a
couple who not only moved countries, to America, but are now
house-sitting in someone else's home, a double displacement. And Marriage is a story entirely told
on the move, as husband and wife travel, separately, along city streets.
While Kennedy uses language that keeps us uneasy, hinting at the
not-rightness of these situations, there is black humour here too, as
befits a writer who is also a stand-up comedienne. A character in Edinburgh
is introduced as: "This is Fintan who interfered with
sharon fruit", and in Saturday
Teatime, a woman musing during her first flotation tank
experience describes the hostess of a recent party as "a dead-eyed,
organic hummous producing marionette with a whispery, creepy laugh" and
her husband "a sticky-handed fraud reliant on alcohol, golf and
non-threatening porn". The descriptions of various dental disasters in Story of My Life had me giggling, until the blood.
However, there is little lightness in these stories. I found something
that touched me in most of them, although in one or two there was
imagery I found somewhat heavy-handed, over-egging the pudding, as one
my writing teachers once said. One or two of the endings sum the
situation up too neatly, knocking into us what we already know and what
we didn't need to be said.
Despite a slightly weak ending, As God Made Us is an extremely powerful story that reminded me of Day,
the novel whose protagonist is a World War II veteran reliving his time
as an RAF bomber. Here, Kennedy once again travels into the mind of a
character so far, it seems, from her own experience - a male ex-soldier
- demonstrating so finely that "write what you know" is
ridiculous advice for a writer.
It is one of the
few stories that runs almost chronologically, without much flashback.
Kennedy unfurls it slowly, making us wonder why we are here with
Dan. This is not to say that I
was bored; I was gripped by the character from the opening. Even though
we are in the third person,
the voice here is not a distant observer, we hear Dan's his thoughts as
he would think them.
He'd lean on the railing by number 6 and listen and settle his head,
control it, and watch the glow start up from the flowers someone had
planted in these big round-bellied pots, ceramic pots with whole thick
fists of blossom in them now: a purple kind and a crimson, and both
shades luminous, really almost sore with birhgtness, especially when
all else was still dim.
Using an unexpected word such as "fists" to describe flowers is very
Kennedy-esque, and on second and third readings, I saw how this
vocabulary was not accidental. This is an anatomical story.
In this collection, as in several others I have reviewed, there is a
story about stories themselves, Story of My Life. I like to think this is the author
pulling back the curtain a little:
I understand a lot - very often - almost all the time - most especially
the stories. They are an exercise of will: within them whatever I
think, I can wish it to be. They are the worlds that obey me, kinder
and finer worlds...
Along with her Scottish contemporaries Ali Smith and Janice Galloway,
to name just two, Kennedy is a master at creating these worlds. The
twelve in this book may not appear on the surface to be kinder or
finer, but these are the best kind of short stories, ones which make
you half-smile as they cause you exquisite pain. Take regularly,
in small doses.