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Reading Scotland 2018

The ones in bold are in the 100 Best Scottish Books list.

I’ve read 33 Scottish (in the broadest sense) books in 2018, 7 SF or Fantasy (italicised,) 13 by women, 20 by men. E M Brown (aka Eric Brown) qualifies by having a small part of Buying Time set in Scotland and by living near Dunbar for the past few years.

I’ve not a good balance this year between men and women, mainly due to exhausting the women on the 100 Best list.

The Distant Echo by Val McDermid
Living Nowhere by John Burnside
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Gathering Night by Margaret Elphinstone
When They Lay Bare by Andrew Greig
Autumn by Ali Smith
The Great Chain of Unbeing by Andrew Crumey
The Lie of the Land by Michael Russell
As Though We Were Flying by Andrew Geig
Madame Doubtfire by Anne Fine
Jericho Sleep Alone by Chaim I Bermant
Hame by Annalena McAfee
The Thirteenth Disciple by J Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon)
Memento Mori by Muriel Spark
Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant
The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan
The New Road by Neil Munro
Glitter of Mica by Jessie Kesson
From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming
The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark
Supercute Futures by Martin Milllar
The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison
Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyre
Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincey
Adam Blair by J G Lockhart
Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh
The Shipbuilders by George Blake
Mr Alfred M.A. by George Friel
Serious Sweet by A L Kennedy
Interrupted Journey by James Wilson
The Bone Yard by Paul Johnston
Buying Time by E M Brown

Serious Sweet by A L Kennedy

Vintage, 2017, 525 p.

Serious Sweet focuses on the activities of London dwelling Jon Sigurdson, a civil servant who has come to hate his work, and Meg Williams, bankrupt accountant and recovering alcoholic, over the course of one day in which they do not come together till late on. The book tends to follow each in turn with their actions and encounters in normal text and their inner thoughts rendered in italics. Smaller snippets, snapshots of daily life in London, intersperse the time denoted incidents of their day. It all makes for a rather dense reading experience.

Jon is divorced after his wife had a series of affairs but loves his daughter Rebecca. Meg has just had an all-clear appointment at the gynaecologist, after treatment for cancer of the womb, which has nevertheless left her sad at the loss of the possibility of having children.

Jon had previously had a wheeze of inviting women, via an advertisement, to pay him to write them letters expressing kind thoughts. They may write back to him but the idea is that they never meet. (It is hinted that on Jon’s part this may be an elaborate cover to reveal government secrets in letters to someone called Lucy though this is not fully explored.) Meg took up his offer and they met when she tracked him to the PO Box where he picks his letters up. But they do not have a formal relationship. A series of everyday obstacles – and a crisis meeting – prevent their planned dinner date but they do eventually get together late in the day.

Through Jon, Kennedy provides a commentary on the indifference – almost savagery – of the prevailing attitudes of those in power, “Suffering no longer indicates hardship, it indicates bad character and celestial punishment. And if God has seen fit to punish – well that invites further loss,” is followed by, “Tell the average mug punter to put ten quid in the communal tin, wake him up the following morning and he’ll accept without hesitation that asking for ten pence back because he needs it would be a sin.” The mantra is “Opinions Not Facts. These are our watchwords.” Its effect is that people are forced to fail and then they are blamed for that failure. The strategy is to, “Advise them badly, advise them misleadingly and issue threats.” Which only compounds their – and society’s – problems.

Jon says to a colleague, “‘We’ve had more than ten years of being told about the undeserving poor. If you’re poor enough to need benefits you must be doing something wrong – you must be something wrong and undeserving. Want shouldn’t get – that’s our departmental motto. Our national credo – we all love royal babies and hate the poor.’”

The reply he gets is that, “‘Conservatives know you can’t change human nature and therefore the suffering … have brought their pain upon themselves. They could only be forgiven if they thrived …. and no longer need any help. And if you can’t change human nature, you don’t need government …. except for those posts occupied by those who believe you can’t change human nature.
‘And progressives believe that you can change human nature and therefore the great plunging herd of voters must be restrained and managed at all times.’”

(That “knowledge” which conservatives have, though, is merely a belief. Thriving is no signifier of virtue, nor even of effort. Not thriving is certainly not an indication of lack of either. It might simply be bad luck or lack of opportunity. Human nature may be a given but human behaviour isn’t, or else why are there laws to influence it?)

That this is embedded in a narrative which tends to meander takes off its edge somewhat. The book is not one that rewards light reading. Persevere though and it has its moments.

Pedant’s corner:- “to not speak” (I suppose there may be a gradation of meaning with “not to speak”,) shtum, “The he leans in” (Then he leans in,) on-board (why the hyphen? On board is fine,) “a mass of individuals undergo” (a mass undergoes,) “‘I though you were’” (thought,) he is trying make sure (trying to make sure.)

Hame by Annalena McAfee

The Fascaray Archives, Harvill Secker, 2017, 585 p.

 Hame cover

This delightful book positively reeks of Scottishness. Told in Pairts Ane (Incomers), Twa (Cauld Handsel,) Thrie (Oor Ain Fowk), and Fower (Haste Ye Back,) and with a Glossary of Scots words, a Select Bibliography and two Appendices, it is not a straightforward novel – though I must say it pleased me from the first pages in having footnotes. It is on the one hand the journal of Mhairi McPhail, a Canadian of Scots extraction recently living in New York, returned to her ancestral home of the Hebridean island of Fascaray to investigate the life and papers of the late poet Grigor McWatt (self-styled Bard of Fascaray) and set up a museum in his memory, on the other a history of Fascaray (and through it the wider Scottish experience) as delivered through extracts from a supposedly forthcoming volume composed by McWatt entitled The Fascaray Compendium (as edited by McPhail and to be published by Crumlin Press) plus extracts from McPhail’s own book on McWatt’s life, A Granite Ballad – The Reimagining of Grigor McWatt (Thackeray College Press, 2016,) all interspersed with examples of the poet’s work (mostly owersettings – translations – or reimaginings of poems familiar from other sources.)

Blessed – and blighted – by the success of his song Hame tae Fascaray in the early 1960s (the list given of artists who have recorded it includes among the great, the good – and the unlikely [The Three Tenors? Dolly Parton?] – the wonderfully named Shooglenifty) and whose lyric bears some (undoubtedly intentional) similarities to The Mingulay Boat Song, McWatt is stand-offish – except perhaps in his cups – curmudgeonly, opinionated, a staunch supporter of both the Scots language and the islanders’ interests, fiercely anti-landlord and even more virulently anti-English – almost a caricature, although solidly fleshed out, of the dour Scot. His relationship with Lilias Hogg (the Flooer o Rose Street) – represented here as something of a poet’s groupie but evidently devoted to McWatt – is predictably distant, not helped by Hogg’s discovery of letters to McWatt from a mysterious woman named Jean.

Our partial narrator McPhail also has a troubled history, a straying husband and her disastrous retaliatory affair in part precipitating her decision to take the job on Fascaray, necessitating bringing along her nine-year old daughter Agnes, who in turn suffers a more or less benign neglect. But who finds the island interesting. At one point in her journal Mhairi describes the contrast in Glasgow’s atmosphere from the night of the Independence referendum to the day after. “Yesterday Glasgow was a carnival. Today it’s a funeral,” and tells us, “Scots have little time for overt sentimentality, though the covert sort has its place.”

Such meditations on Scottishness are never far away. In his Compendium McWatt quotes a Spaniard as writing, “‘Scots go to war, and when they run out of wars, they fight each other,’ and goes on to add, “While our native hostility and suspicion of each other may be ingrained, it is as nothing – a mere shadow dance – to the contempt we hold for our arrogant southern neighbours.” Mhairi’s journal contains a narrator’s aside about the smoothing out of an interviewee’s Scots for tourist consumption. “For ‘very’ read ‘gey’, for ‘aren’t’ read ‘arenae’. It’s not so hard is it?” But her transcriber avers, “‘There’s no Scots leid1…. There are about four Scots dialects and ten sub-dialects, and they’re all variants of English with a bit of Norse thrown in.’” (To which it’s a pity that Mhairi doesn’t reply, ‘But Scots was once one of the great languages of mediæval Europe. On equal footing.’) Later, though, Mhairi does come across McWatt writing that Scots is “no more a dialect than Catalan is a local variant of Castilian Spanish.”

Among McWatt’s many lists of Fascaray’s plant life, animals, sea creatures and the like is one of Scots words denoting fine weather – most of which necessarily describe short interludes – and one, deow, which is defined as “gentle rain”. We are also treated to his view of what makes a Scot – “a modest stoicism, a sense of social justice, a distrust of rank and the trappings of fame and an unbragging appreciation of the beauty and majesty around us.”

The titles and nominal publishers of McWatt’s writings add further grace notes:-
his Memoirs:- Forby (as by Virr Press, 1962) and Ootwith (Smeddum Beuks, 1994,)
his Collected Journalism – mostly reprints from the local (mainland) newspaper The Auchwinnie Pibroch:- Frae Mambeag Brae: Selected Columns and Essays of Grigor McWatt (Stravaigin Press, 1980) and Wittins: Mair Selected Columns and Essays of Grigor McWatt (Stravaigin Press, 2011,)
the books of poetry:- Kenspeckelt (Virr Press, 1959,)
Kowk in the Kaleyard (Virr Press, 1975,)
Wappenshaw (Virr Press, 1986,)
Warld in a Gless: The Collected Varse of Grigor McWatt (Smeddum Beuks, 1992,)
Teuchter’s Chapbook (Smeddum Beuks, 1998,)
Thoog a Poog (Smeddum Beuks, 2010,)
That’s me Awa (Smeddum Beuks, 2013,)
The Whigmaleerie’s Ower – The Complete Collected Verse of Grigor McWatt, ed. Ailish Mooney (Smeddum Beuks, 2015.)

The book’s endpapers display an illustrated sketch map of Fascaray and its environs. The first appendix contains recipes for Fascaray delicacies – the method for a fish piece2 takes up one line, as does that for the soorocks salad – the second is the sheet music for Hame tae Fascaray (as published by Stramash Music.)

Though it is twice (subtly) foreshadowed I’m still undecided as to whether the twist in the final sections revealing the nature of Jean’s relationship to McWatt enhances or detracts from McAfee’s overall tale; either response is legitimate.

No matter: notwithstanding the embedded tales with which McAfee has provided us here, what is impressive is the journey, the relish in the use of Scots, the demonstration of its vitality, its refusal to lie down and go away. Hame is a book which revels in the ongoing Scottish tradition in literature.

1leid = language
2piece is of course a Scots word for sandwich.

Pedant’s corner:- benificent (beneficent,) Menzies’ (Menzies’s,) “the English national anthem on the Home Service” (would actually be the UK one I would think,) Mhari-Ann (elsewhere Mhairi-Ann,) there is an opened parenthesis on page 176 which remains resolutely unclosed, Fascaray is described as being in the Hebrides but Mhairi at one point puts it in the North Sea, “met at a dance in Green’s Playhouse, Glasgow” [where the Sensational Alex Harvey band was playing.] (I doubt it was a dance then; a concert maybe.) Millais’ (Millais’s,) the Fringe Festival (back in the day it was called the Festival Fringe,) a nude revue in Edinburgh in the 1950s? (I don’t think so,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, span (spun,) “as a ‘a quisling’” (remove one of those “a”s,) “It is to the inhabitants of my tiny isle that I turn to” (one of those “to”s is superfluous,) “ the new dance the twist had come to Auchwinnnie” [the nearest town on the mainland] “in 1968” (a trifle late even for the back of beyond. Early 1960s, more like,) midgies (midges,) The festival (Festival,) “was said to be have been launched” (was said to have been launched,) “on the the fact” (only one “the”,) Miss Geddes’ (Geddes’s,) “a Harry Potter star” (in 2000? The first film came out in 2001,) “none the the wiser” (only one “the”,) sea-sclaters (sea-slaters?) “domestic woodlouse or sclater” (I have only ever heard or seen this as “slater”,) catapaults (catapults,) “and where if fell” (it fell,) in the Glossary “wheen” is defined as a small amount (I have only ever heard or read “wheen” as describing a relatively large amount.)

Scotland’s Favourite Book

In a programme on BBC 1 Scotland last night the results of a poll to discover Scotland’s favourite book were announced.

These were apparently voted on from a long list of thirty books.

As usual the titles marked in bold I have read; italics are on my tbr pile.The ones marked by a strike-through I may get round to sometime.

An Oidhche Mus Do Sheol Sinn (The Night Before We Sailed) by Angus Peter Campbell
Garnethill by Denise Mina
Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman
Imagined Corners by Willa Muir
Knots & Crosses by Ian Rankin
Laidlaw by William McIlvanney
Lanark by Alasdair Gray
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Morvern Callar by Alan Warner
Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott
So I Am Glad by A.L. Kennedy
Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins
The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh
The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson

The Wire in the Blood by Val McDermid
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
Trumpet by Jackie Kay
Under the Skin by Michel Faber

Thanks to my working through of the 100 best Scottish Books and the Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books I have read nineteen of these, with two on the tbr and others maybe to consider.

I suspect that in the fullness of time some of the more modern of them will fall away from public affection.

My strike rate for the final top ten was 7/10. The list (in descending order) was:-

10. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
9. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
8. Knots & Crosses by Ian Rankin
7. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
6. Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone by J K Rowling
5. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
4. The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
3. Lanark by Alasdair Gray
2. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
1. Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

I am particularly pleased that James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner made it here and the strong showing of Alasdair Gray was also welcome. Personally I don’t think The Wasp Factory is Iain Banks’s best book but only one from each author was on the long list.

Gibbon’s Sunset Song was the one I predicted to the good lady would come first. Since its publication it has been an enduring favourite with Scottish readers.

100 Best Scottish Books (Maybe)

I came across this list a week or so ago. There are some odd choices in it. The Woolf and Orwell are surely pushing it a bit to qualify as in any way Scottish. And The King James Bible? Yes he was primarily a Scottish King but the endeavour was undertaken for reasons to do with his English realm.

Those in bold, I have read. There’s a lot I haven’t. Time to pull my socks up.

(Edited to add:- Those with a *I have now read.
Edited again to add:- I have added even more than these to the “have now read” list.)

John Galt – Annals of the Parish* (1821) I’ve read The Member and The Radical. See my review here.
Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul – An Oidhche Mus Do Sheòl Sinn (2003) This is written in Gaelic and hence beyond my competence.
Kate Atkinson – Behind the Scenes at the Museum – (1995) I read this years ago.
Ian Rankin – Black and Blue* (1997) I’ve not read this Rankin but I have Knots and Crosses.
Laura Hird – Born Free* (1999)
Tom Nairn – The Break-Up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism (1977) Non-fiction
Frederic Lindsay – Brond (1984)
Naomi Mitchison – The Bull Calves (1947) Not a Mitchison I’ve read but I’ll need to catch up with more of her work. (As of May 2016 on tbr pile.)
Anne Donovan – Buddha Da* (2003)
Matthew Fitt – But n Ben A-Go-Go (2000) Science Fiction in Scots! Brilliant stuff.
Patrick MacGill – Children of the Dead End (1914)
AJ Cronin -The Citadel (1937) Cronin was from Dumbarton. I’ll need to read him sometime.
Frank Kuppner – A Concussed History of Scotland (1990)
Robin Jenkins – The Cone-Gatherers* (1955)
Thomas De Quincey – Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822)
Iain Crichton Smith – Consider the Lilies* (1968)
R. M. Ballantyne – The Coral Island (1858) I may have read this as a child but I cannot actually remember doing so.
Louise Welsh – The Cutting Room (2002) (tbr pile)
Robert Alan Jamieson – A Day at the Office (1991)
Archie Hind – The Dear Green Place* (1966)
James Kelman – A Disaffection (1989) I read years ago. Kelman is essential.
RD Laing – The Divided Self (1960) non-fiction
William McIlvanney – Docherty (1975) Again read years ago. Again McIlvanney is essential reading.
David Hume – An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) Philosophy. I haven’t read this.
Andrew Greig – Electric Brae (1997) A superb first novel. See my review here.
Tobias Smollett – The Expedition of Humphry Clinker* (1771) Smollet was from Renton, which is 2 miles from Dumbarton.
Violet Jacob – Flemington* (1911)
Agnes Owens – For the Love of Willie (1998) See my review here.
Ian Fleming – From Russia, With Love (1957) Fleming? Scottish? Only by extraction it seems.
Dorothy Dunnett – The Game of Kings (1961) (tbr pile)
Denise Mina – Garnethill (1998) (tbr pile)
James Frazer – The Golden Bough (1890)
Nancy Brysson Morrison – The Gowk Storm* (1933)
Bernard MacLaverty – Grace Notes (1997)
George Mackay Brown – Greenvoe* (1972)
Alistair MacLean – The Guns of Navarone (1957) I read this many years ago. Decent enough wartime thriller.
J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)
Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness (1902) Conrad was the favourite author of the original Jack Deighton (my grandfather.) I’ve read The Secret Agent and always mean to get round to more. But… Wasn’t Conrad Polish?
John Prebble – The Highland Clearances (1963) Non-fiction
Ali Smith – Hotel World (2001) See my review here.
Arthur Conan Doyle – The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)
George Douglas Brown – The House with the Green Shutters (1901) A Scottish classic; see my review.
Willa Muir – Imagined Corners (1931) (tbr pile)
Luke Sutherland – Jelly Roll (1998)
Chaim Bermant – Jericho Sleep Alone (1964) is on the tbr pile.
James Robertson – Joseph Knight (2003) Robertson is another of those very good present day Scottish authors. My review of Joseph Knight.
Various – King James Bible: Authorised Version (1611) ???? See comments above.
Alasdair Gray – Lanark (1981) Absolutely superb stuff. More essential reading.
Ronald Frame – The Lantern Bearers (1999)
James Boswell – The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)
Bella Bathurst – The Lighthouse Stevensons* (1999) Non-fiction. I bought this for the good lady and it’s another I keep meaning to read.
George MacDonald – Lilith (1895) The Scottish tradition is to write fantasy rather than SF. I’ll need to catch up with this.
John Burnside – Living Nowhere (2003)
Anne Fine – Madame Doubtfire (1987)
Alan Spence – The Magic Flute (1990) I’ve read his Way to Go.
Des Dillon – Me and Ma Gal* (1995)
Margaret Oliphant – Miss Marjoribanks (1866)
Alan Warner – Morvern Callar (1995) I think Warner’s most recent books The Worms can Carry me to Heaven and The Deadman’s Pedal are more successful.
George Friel – Mr Alfred, MA (1972) (tbr pile)
Neil Munro – The New Road (1914)
William Laughton Lorimer (trans.) – The New Testament in Scots (1983)
George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) I know it was written on Jura but Orwell? Scottish?
Alexander McArthur and H. Kingsley Long – No Mean City: A Story of the Glasgow Slums* (1935)
Alexander McCall Smith – The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998)
Christopher Brookmyre – One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night 1999) Brookmyre is a fun read – if a little too liberal with the violence. But this isn’t even his best book. See my review here.
Catherine Carswell – Open the Door!* (1920)
Andrew O’Hagan – Our Fathers (1999) I have yet to warm to O’Hagan. My review of this book.
A.L. Kennedy – Paradise (2004) Kennedy’s more recent Day and The Blue Book impressed me more.
Muriel Spark – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) My review is here.
James Hogg – The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) The quintessential Scots novel. The döppelganger tradition starts here.
Suhayl Saadi – Psychoraag (2004)
Nan Shepherd – The Quarry Wood* (1928)
Walter Scott – Rob Roy* (1818) Scott more or less invented the Scots historical novel but I can only remember reading Ivanhoe.
Thomas Carlyle – Sartor Resartus (1836) Anothe disgraceful omission on my part I fear.
Toni Davidson – Scar Culture (1999)
Margaret Elphinstone – The Sea Road (2000) I’ve read Elphinstone’s A Sparrow’s Flight and The Incomer; but not this. (tbr pile)
Jimmy Boyle – A Sense of Freedom (1977)
George Blake – The Shipbuilders (1935) (tbr pile)
Gordon Williams – The Siege of Trencher’s Farm (1969)
Neil M Gunn – The Silver Darlings* (1941) Of Gunn’s work I recently read The Well at the World’s End.
Ron Butlin – The Sound of My Voice (1987) I’ve not read his poetry but Butlin’s fiction is excellent. My review of The Sound of my Voice.
Robert Louis Stevenson – The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde* (1886) Following on the döppelganger tradition from Hogg. Again I can’t remember if I’ve read it or just watched adapatations on TV.
Jeff Torrington – Swing Hammer Swing! (1992)
Lewis Grassic Gibbon – Sunset Song (1932) A brilliant novel. Worth its status as a classic. See my thoughts here.
John Buchan – The Thirty-Nine Steps* (1915)
Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse (1927) (tbr pile)
Irvine Welsh – Trainspotting (1993)
Janice Galloway – The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1989) I fear Galloway is an acquired taste. See here.
Jackie Kay – Trumpet (1998) I read this last year.
Christopher Rush – A Twelvemonth and a Day* (1985)
Michel Faber – Under the Skin (2000)
David Lindsay – A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) In the Scots tradition of the fantastical but has a weirdness all its own.
Iain Banks – The Wasp Factory (1984) The much lauded Banks debut. I’ve come to think A Song of Stone may outrank it.
Adam Smith – The Wealth of Nations (1776) The foundation stone of Economics.
Compton Mackenzie – Whisky Galore (1947) (tbr pile)
Jessie Kesson – The White Bird Passes (1958) To be reviewed within the week!
Kenneth Grahame – The Wind in the Willows (1908) I may have read this as a child but can’t honestly remember.
Alexander Trocchi – Young Adam* (1954)
James Kennaway – Tunes of Glory (1956) (tbr pile)
John Gibson Lockhart – Adam Blair (1822) (tbr pile)

The Blue Book by A L Kennedy

Jonathan Cape, 2011, 375 p.

Sumptuously produced with embossed boards, gold leafing, patterned endpapers and page edges in a blue so deep it’s almost purple this is a consciously literary endeavour. It makes frequent reference to your book, the book you are reading, and also has unconventional upper pagination (the numbers at the bottom of the page are in the normal sequence.) It also explicitly mentions the fact that it has three pages numbered 7 – with a page 18 well out of sequence. In addition The Blue Book has three pages numbered 9, two 8s,10s and 27s as well as 0s and 1s towards the end; not forgetting a 666, a 676, a 678, a 798, an 888, a 919 and a 934 in a book with only 375 pages. (There may be some of these I have missed.) Numbers are an important means of communication for the two main characters and Kennedy has toyed with this notion and with us. Quite how necessary it is to do so is another matter. A further notable feature was the repetition of phrases, “Because he was young,” “A man standing in a doorway,” etc. The narration is not straightforward, sometimes describing aspects of a man’s life in detached third person, at others the internal thoughts of Elisabeth Barber as well as the ongoing narrative. There is also a rather high count of a certain expletive.

One of the scenes tells us of a boy being told about girls by his father. Girls, he says, will not be gorgeous like Dusty Springfield, whom the boy rather likes. Or if they are this will not be good news. Which seems like sound advice.

The meat of the novel is compressed into the time scale of a cruise across the Atlantic to New York but there are various flashbacks to earlier incidents in the two main characters’ lives. Elisabeth is taking the trip with her boyfriend Derek who is on the brink of proposing. In the queue to embark they encounter a man who engages them in conversation. This man’s question to Elisabeth later that day when Derek is absent seems shocking but it turns out Elisabeth used to be his partner, not only in life but also on stage in a show which was basically a con where he claimed to have messages from the dead to their loved ones in the audience. The disintegration of Elisabeth’s relationship with Derek and her renewal of that with Arthur Lockwood – implicit from that encounter in the queue – drives the novel.

A flaw for me though was the fact that The Blue Book depends for its emotional impact largely on the late revelation of a crucial piece of information up till then withheld. To be fair it is withheld from one of our duo of characters but it felt too much like a deus ex machina.

The Blue Book is not one to be read lightly, nor with lack of attention.

What Becomes by A L Kennedy

Vintage, 2009, 218p

 What Becomes cover

The back cover blurb of What Becomes makes explicit reference to the old Jimmy Ruffin (among many other performers) hit What Becomes of the Brokenhearted and this collection of short stories does mainly examine fractured or doomed relationships within or outwith marriage. The emblematic story title here would be Whole Family With Young Children Devastated though in the story concerned it actually refers to a notice about a lost pet displayed on local lamp-posts. Two stories are exceptions. Another concerns the careful reconstruction of a new life and relationship after the woman’s husband has died, while As God Made Us is about the camaraderie of a group of ex-soldier amputees and the prejudice they still face.

Kennedy’s style in her short stories is oblique. Very little is stated outright either by her narrators or by the characters but it is all exquisitely, carefully written. The overall sense is of people clinging on, desperate to make connections.

There was one peculiar phrase where a character was described as, “constructing these laborious smiles which I think were designed to imply he was a dandy youngster and blade about town,” – of which I can only make sense by assuming that similes was the intended word. But if it’s not in fact a typo it’s brilliant.

Day by A L Kennedy

Vintage, 2008

Day follows the fortunes of Alfred Day, a former tail gunner in a Lancaster bomber during World War 2. This might lead you to believe he will die in the novel’s denouement – rear gunners were notably short lived, being the first target a night fighter might hit in an attack run and unsuitably positioned to exit a doomed Lanc easily should the worst happen – but it is quickly revealed that after the war he returns to Germany to take a part in a film set in a POW camp. The book roams back and forth through Day’s wartime life, the filming and his relationships with the bomber’s crew, his parents, and the married woman he takes up with.

The prose shifts in various ways. The narrative is not linear, the point of view changes, as do tenses and even the person in which the novel is related. Passages related by “you” – ie in the second person rather than the more familiar first person, I, or third person, s/he, are notoriously difficult to bring off – but Kennedy slides into them and out again with facility.

The post war scenes are the least engaging. They seem to be present to allow Day to recollect his wartime experiences from some distance though they do reveal part of his character and the ugly compromises made by the war’s winners as their old allies turned into adversaries and vice versa.

The front cover tells us Day won the Costa Book of the Year 2007. While the fractured nature of the narrative may render it difficult to read for some, the gradual unravelling of the story does build to its conclusion; where there are no unsignalled authorial surprises waiting for us.

Everything You Need by A L Kennedy.

Jonathan Cape, 1999

This blog is supposed to be about writing, fiction, football and whatever; yet so far I’ve posted nothing about writing. Here’s the corrective. I don’t know whether I ought to or not but I intend to post reviews of the books I have read recently. This is the first.

Everything You Need
by A L Kennedy

Everything You Need cover

Kennedy comes laden with praise and plaudits but I’ve always found it difficult to find a way into her work. There can be an opacity about her prose that obscures understanding (or is that just me?) Everything You Need has this opacity at the start but does become more transparent once the story gets into its stride.
It’s mainly set in Wales on an island retreat where a group of writers support one another in their literary efforts. As such it breaks one of the little spoken rules of writing – don’t write about writers – but, of course, as one of the characters says near the end, there are no rules. There are also occasional forays to a London publisher’s or to literary parties.
A newcomer, Mary, brought up elsewhere by two uncles – one of whom isn’t – comes under the tutelage of Nathan, an established male writer whose connection with her we know to be closer than she ever suspects. The novel teases out the development of their association over several years as they each successfully conclude a novel – Mary’s first and Nathan’s long awaited “serious” one. We are given extracts of Nathan’s novel – but not Mary’s – at various junctures. This delineates his past and present, and will finally reveal his secret to Mary (but only after Everything You Need ends.)
In terms of characterisation the homosexual relationship between the two “uncles” is handled matter-of-factly and without tripping into sentimentality later on where it might have, though strangely – the book is set in the 1990s – the treatment of Mary’s relationship with her boyfriend Johnno felt a little old-fashioned. There was a touch of the 1950s about it. The novel also had echoes of The Wasp Factory – even before the obvious incident late in the book where this comparison is most apt.
I must say the picture it portrays of literary London is not flattering. (Perhaps Kennedy wishes not to be invited to any more literary dos.)
Since it is over 500 pages long (though the type face is large) and my reading time is short, I had put off reading this novel for years. However, it does not feel like time misspent. The characters were well drawn and mostly engaging, though Nathan’s dithering was a touch annoying. But without that there would have been neither plot nor tension so I’ll have to forgive Kennedy there.
Everything You Need contains nothing particularly startling or revelatory about the human condition beyond displaying how difficult communication can be between people – especially if they care for each other – but there are worse ways to while your hours away.

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