- Geraint Low
Novelist and short-story writer A(lison) L(ouise) Kennedy was born in Dundee, Scotland on 22 October 1965. She studied English and Drama at Warwick University where she began writing dramatic monologues and short stories. She was Writer in Residence for Hamilton and East Kilbride Social Work Department and won the 1990 Social Work Today Award. She has worked for the arts and special needs charity Project Ability since 1989, first as Writer in Residence (1989-95), then as editor of Outside Lines magazine, and has been a member of the Management Committee since 1998.
She was editor of New Writing Scotland (1993-5) and was Writer in Residence at Copenhagen University in 1995. She reviews for The Scotsman, the Glasgow Herald and the Daily Telegraph, is a contributor to the Guardian, and has been a judge for both the Booker Prize for Fiction (1996) and The Guardian First Book Award (2001). She was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 2000.
Her first book, Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains (1990), a bleak collection of short stories set in Scotland, won several awards including the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, a Scottish Arts Council Book Award and the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award. In 1993 she was named as one of Granta magazine's 20 'Best of Young British Novelists'.
Other short story collections include Now That You're Back (1994) and Original Bliss (1997), and her novels include: Looking for the Possible Dance (1993), which centres on a young Scottish woman's relationships with her father, her lover and her employer; So I Am Glad (1995), winner of the Encore Award, which focuses on the trauma of child sexual abuse and its consequences in adulthood; Everything You Need (1999), the story of a middle-aged writer living on a remote island and his attempt to build a relationship with his estranged daughter; Day (2007) was winner of the 2007 Costa Book of the Year Award; and The Blue Book (2011).
She wrote the screenplay to the BFI/Channel 4 film Stella Does Tricks, released in 1998, and edited New Writing 9 (2000) with John Fowles, published in the UK by Vintage in association with the British Council. In 2015 she wrote an episode for Doctor Who, entitled 'The Drosten's Curse'.
Her most recent books of short stories are Indelible Acts (2002); What Becomes (2009); and All the Rage (2014).
A. L. Kennedy lives and works in Glasgow and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. In 2003 she was nominated by Granta magazine as one of 20 'Best of Young British Novelists'.
It has been said of A.L. Kennedy that “she knows grimness the way some novelists know music or food.”(The Independent, 2009). Her series of technically accomplished and crafted novels, with their cheerless tales of despair and misery have all conspired to bolster this morbid reputation
But her other occasional line of work – as a stand-up comic on the Scottish circuit – provides perhaps the most instructive way in to her work. Like live comic performance, Kennedy’s fiction an art that thrives on idiosyncratic risk-taking, on handling of voice, and on winning over audiences through timing and craft. As with the confrontational nature of the stand-up routine, she has spoken of fiction as something she “does” to her audience, defiantly challenging expectations through shifts in tone and narrative riddles. And as so often with those blessed with comic gifts, the dour eye she casts over the world is fearlessly bleak but ever alert to the powers of humanity, passion and transcendence.
Whilst being clearly at home with themes of unhappiness and loss, Kennedy therefore addresses them with a wryness, versatility and lucidity that helps elevate them above their potential gloom. Her novels have encompassed subjects such as the alcoholic woman, the suicidal writer and a Lancaster bomber tail-gunner left over from the Second World War and in her non-fiction, bull fighting has been another area of interest. The style of her fiction and non-fiction never fails to be compelling and is also often unbearably perceptive.
This is the case with her first two novels, Looking for the Possible Dance (1993), and So I am Glad (1995), both of which have abuse and love and loathing as central themes. Everything You Need (1999), her third novel, may be defined as a study of depression and/or a warning about the dangers of writing. It is an emotive work that illuminates Kennedy’s ability to be insightful with the combination of poignancy and humour. When two lovers, Richard and Lynda, are described we are left in no doubt about their unsuitability: ‘Having begun to sag equally and grow scared of a lonely future they were now – like phlegm and a chest infection – almost entirely inseparable.’
Everything You Need’s over-arching philosophy, which merges with the spiritual, comes with the growing attachment between novelist Nathan Staples and his adult daughter, Mary Lamb. He engineers her visit to Foal Island, where he lives, ostensibly for her to be the seventh writer at the retreat, but his main imperative is to meet and get to know her. This is based on the premise that she does not know his true identity, and he is afraid to tell her. He is also unable to accept himself, which is made manifest in his suicide bids, but when he finally comes to accept ‘niceness’, which he had earlier abhorred as a writer, it is suggested that he has found a version of peace and, perhaps, everything he needs.
Through Hannah Luckraft, the first-person narrator of the fourth novel Paradise (2004), the delusions and self-justifications of an alcoholic are delivered with a cutting dark wit: ‘And I mean, my life is nowhere near as simple as it may appear. Being me is a job – is labour so time-consuming and expensive that I have a second job just to support it.’ She tells of misfortune and blackouts in her ‘badly planned life’ and the novel begins as she gradually and confusedly tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. This confusion also influences the structure as the narrative switches across time, and the chaos comes to a climax in chapter 12 (of 14) in a surreal nightmare journey that she undertakes in search of love and sobriety. Hannah’s life is distanced from the simplified clichés that could lazily explain why she began drinking and the narrative points the way instead to a lifelong sense of difference (even freakishness) when comparing herself to others. The addiction to alcohol just makes this difference visible.
In the Costa Prize-winning Day (2007), the eponymous Alfie Day relives his experience as a prisoner-of-war as an extra in a film in 1949. This is a controlled and subdued investigation into the damage inflicted by the Second World War as Alfie fails to adjust to the loss of his fellow crew members from his bomber plane. His civilian life before and after the war is touched upon, but only to give an emphasis to the excitement of his war-time experiences. As befits a war novel, he is also tortured by these memories: ‘This morning he could feel them, inside and out, bad thoughts getting clever with him, sly. They lapped like dirtied water behind his face and outside him they thickened the breeze until the surface touching him, pressing his lips, was far more quick and complex than only air.’
Day makes notable and rare use of the second person (‘you’) voice. Although Kennedy was complimented by Ursula Le Guin in The Guardian for her ‘narrative gift’, her review also argued that this use of the second person is not effective: ‘Telling a story aloud, we may all slip into the second person, in the present tense, as a ploy to include the listener. This “you” is plural; it means “we”. It works fine in stand-up comedy – which is one of Kennedy’s talents. But she employs it to tell what a single person, Day, is thinking and feeling. Used thus, where shared experience can’t be assumed and there is no “we”, it is relentlessly intrusive.’ (The Guardian, 7 April 2007).
There are other ways of reading such a technique, however. This perceived intrusiveness may be understood as being a key device as the unassuming Alfie forces the readers to be included in his narrative. His life before and after the war is characterized by not only the influence of his violent father, but also his working-class background. In Alfie’s war, the class lines were blurred if not erased and the use of ‘you’ is a representation of his speech and is in keeping with the attempt to give validity to his class position. Furthermore, as well as offering inclusivity, ‘you’ is simultaneously a means to dissociate Alfie from the readers, and Alfie from himself, as he relives the out of the ordinary events. Because the second-person narrator is used so infrequently, it has a potentially defamiliarising effect and reiterates the impact that the war has had on him.
Sometimes Kennedy’s play with narrative has encountered wider resistance, leaving readers cold for a range of reasons. In the gloriously claustrophobic The Blue Book (2011), for example, a study of transatlantic ocean travel and two ill-suited companions, the second person becomes the focus once more for an unsparing an often brutally honest interior monologue. This time these devices were placed in the service of plot secrets that are not revealed until the final moments. To Carol Birch in the Guardian, this kind of “tricksiness” was not “where her strengths lie.” The Telegraph remarked that “on a technical level, it’s an impressive novel” but ultimately “a disjointed and uninvolving one.” Yet even here, the stark and beguiling quality of the prose manages to win the doubters over, as Kennedy “writes beautifully, sometimes producing the kind of sentences that stop you in your tracks and make you linger and savour.” (The Guardian, August 2011).
This kind of exquisite craftsmanship seems sometimes more suited to shorter pieces. Fittingly, then, the thoughtfulness that is evident in Kennedy’s novels is also apparent in her short story collections Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains (1990), Now That You’re Back(1994), Original Bliss (1997) and Indelible Acts (2002). Her 2009 collection What Becomes was a particularly successful exercise. That book was a series of stories that dealt with such typically sullen scenarios as failed relationships, child mortality, serious injury and the misfortunes of life. They were centred and, to some extent patterned on themes of self-knowledge, dismay, guilt and an unfolding awareness of one’s predicament, and to The Guardian, they perfectly captured “the torments and traps of the past… [the] claustrophobia of being marooned inside one's own head” (Alex Clark, August 2009)
On the face of it, her non-fiction excursion On Bullfighting (1999) seems a surprising detour from her fictional work. But more carefully considered seems like a fascinating mid-point in her career that helps to crystallise some of her key themes. A detailed and sometimes immersive study of the Spanish corrida, as one might expect from Kennedy this is also a contemplation of death in life. This is underlined in chapter one as she explains her own suicidal impulse ‘by way of a preamble’ and tells of her decision to step down (rather than jump to her death).
In that book, she promises honesty and reveals that she has no prior interest or enthusiasm for this subject: ‘I was simply asked if I would write this and I simply agreed.’ On Bullfighting provides a kind of eloquent commentary on this writer’s quest for expression and for communicating the sadness and also the joy within the human condition. In taking the project on, she wanted to see if she was still capable of writing and ‘to discover if the elements which seemed so much a part of the corrida – death, transcendence, immortality, joy, pain, isolation and fear – would come back to me. Because they were part of the process of writing and, good and bad, I miss them.’
Her output during the subsequent decade demonstrates that these themes and emotions have, fortunately, returned with a vengeance. It is a career that continues to mine what Carol Birch aptly describes as her “cool wit, spare stylishness, sharp sense of place and world-worn tenderness.” (The Guardian, August 2011).
Dr Julie Ellam, 2008 and Dr Tom Wright, 2013