What Becomes
 by A L Kennedy

Jonathan Cape, 2009 hardback
  Fifth collection

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 University.

Read an interview with A L Kennedy

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"He 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 be:
No more than one a day, after food.
Exceed the stated dose at your own risk.
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.

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?'
    He'd smiled again, which meant that he might have seemed sad for the 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.
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 gasping.

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 of 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.

Tania Hershman is editor of The Short Review. Her collection, The White Road and Other Stories, is published by Salt Modern Fiction.
Tania's other Short Reviews: Etgar Keret & Samir el-Youssef "Gaza Blues"

Melvin J. Bukiet "A Faker's Dozen"

Rusty Barnes "Breaking it Down"

Roy Kesey "All Over"

John Klima (ed) "Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories"

Kelley Eskridge "Dangerous Space"

18 Lies and 3 Truths: StoryQuarterly 2007 Annual

Aimee Bender "Wilful Creatures"

Paddy O'Reilly "The End of the World"

Annie Clarkson "Winter Hands"

Yannick Murphy "In a Bear's Eye"

Declan Meade (ed) "Let's Be Alone Together"

Lise Erdrich "Night Train"

Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing

Alexandra Chasin "Kissed By"

Tamar Yellin "Kafka in Bronteland"

Mary Miller "Big World"

Ali Smith "The First Person and Other Stories"

Chris Beckett "The Turing Test"

Petina Gappah "An Elegy for Easterly"

Sean Lovelace "How Some People Like Their Eggs"

Amnesty International "Freedom: An Anthology of Short Stories Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights"
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If you liked this book you might also like....

Ali Smith "The First Person and Other Stories"

Anything else by A L Kennedy

Mary Miller "Big World"

Paddy O'Reilly "The End of the World"

What other reviewers thought:

Daily Telegraph


The Guardian



Culture Critic


The Book Abyss

Wing's World Web

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