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Reality, Reality by Jackie Kay

Picador, 2012, 248 p.

 Reality, Reality cover

The title of this third collection of Jackie Kay’s short stories reflects the contents. Most of the stories have shifting perspectives or protagonists who are unsure of their surroundings. All are very well written.

Reality, Reality is a stream of consciousness narration by a woman who is attempting to reach the final of a TV cookery competition, or thinks she is.
Another stream of consciousness, These are not my Clothes is told from the point of view of an inmate in a care home – who is not receiving very good care. The title is a phrase she keeps repeating to the nurses who dress her. Her only confidante is the part-time cleaner Vadnie.
From its first sentence I could sense from the way it is written that The First Lady of Song is a piece of Science Fiction; which is what, indeed, it is. It is narrated by a female singer, who centuries ago, was drugged by her father with a potion that meant she would not die. Her performing names always start with the letter ‘E’ – Elina, Eugenia, Ekateriana, Elisabeth, Ella, Emilia. The only change over time is that her skin darkens. Kay doesn’t bring much that is conceptually new to the old SF chestnut of the life eternal but she does write it well.
In The Pink House a heavily pregnant woman – also heavily debt-ridden – finds refuge in the house that Elisabeth Gaskell once lived in.
Grace and Rose is the story of the first lesbian wedding in Shetland, told by both its principals. A joyous tale of love and fulfilment.
In Bread Bin the narrator’s grandmother tells her she has never had an orgasm – but always had a clean bread bin. The narrator is similarly starved of sexual ecstasy; till the age of forty-nine.
Doorstep sees Cheryl decide to spend Christmas on her own; to the displeasure of her latest girl-friend Sharon.
Hadassah is a retelling of the Moses story, updated to feature a young refugee, Hadassah, who becomes the King’s eyes and ears. The King is running a people-trafficking and prostitution operation.
Inspired by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, The White Cot features two women in a holiday let picking at the cracks in their relationship. One had wanted a child, the other hadn’t. The white cot in their room becomes the material focus for the first’s longings.
In Mind Away the narrator’s mother is gradually losing her memories and thoughts. Together they seek out the doctor into whose head the thoughts have gone.
Two girls who were on holiday together aged ten and nine the year their parents swapped partners, forever after call themselves Barn and Tawny due to witnessing the activities of an Owl.
In The Last of the Smokers two life-long friends contemplate giving up by comparing smoking to ex-lovers.
A woman seeks to find the Mini Me inside her by dint of dieting. Repeatedly.
Mrs Vadnie Marleen Sevlon (the same Vadnie as in These are not my Clothes) took the title Mrs as she thought I it would engender respect. She also invents a husband and children for herself reflecting that, ‘Only people with money have choice.’
The Winter Visitor appears to our narrator every so often without fanfare, taking over her life, until vanishing again as mysteriously.

Pedant’s corner:- “like she is tossing a ball” (as if she is tossing a ball,) “the river Mersey” (river here is a proper noun, so River Mersey,) “and, and” (only one ‘and’ needed, no comma required.) “None of them have” (strictly ‘none of them has’ but it was in the narrator’s voice so perhaps true to that,) “coming forth to carry me home” (I had always thought the words from Swing Low, Sweet Chariot were ‘coming for to carry me home’ and it seems that is indeed the case (,_Sweet_Chariot#Traditional_lyrics)) homeopaths (homoeopaths, please; or even homœopaths,) “I clamour through” (it was through a window, so ‘clamber’,) sprung (sprang,) edidn’t (didn’t,) “as if it was the scene a crime I had committed” (scene of a crime I had committed,) doubt (a cigarette end is spelled dout,) lasagne (lasagne. Narrator’s spelling? Or author’s?) “‘could of’” (could have; but this was in dialogue.)

Fiere by Jackie Kay

Picador, 2011, 76 p.

 Fiere cover

I borrowed this from a doomed library the day before Kay was announced as Scotland’s latest Makar.

Once again it shows that poetry – or modern poetry – is not my thing. The poems herein are interesting enough but none of them really grabbed me. Some of them deal with Kay’s visit to Nigeria (from where her birth father originated; her mother was Scottish and she was adopted by a Scottish couple.) In Nigeria she discovers she is regarded as a white woman. The reference to, and quotes from, MacDiarmid in “from A Drunk Woman Looks at her Nipple” (that titling suggests an extract but it doesn’t seem to be) were diverting though.

Pedant’s corner:- In Road to Amaudo (the village of peace in Igbo) the word is spelled like that twice before Amadou is used, again twice, later on. It is possible that Amadou is a different place, as on its second appearance it is followed by “the road to my heart”.

Reading Scotland 2015

A lot of my Scottish reading this year was prompted by the list of 100 best Scottish Books I discovered in February. Those marked below with an asterisk are in that 100 best list. (In the case of Andrew Greig’s Electric Brae I read it before I was aware of the list and for Robert Louis Stevenson his novella was in the book of his shorter fiction that I read.)

Electric Brae by Andrew Greig*
A Sparrow’s Flight by Margaret Elphinstone
The Guinea Stamp by Annie S Swan
The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson*
Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks by Christopher Brookmyre
Buddha Da by Anne Donovan*
Flemington by Violet Jacob*
Tales From Angus by Violet Jacob
Annals of the Parish by John Galt
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Change and Decay in All Around I See by Allan Massie
The Hangman’s Song by James Oswald
Wish I Was Here by Jackie Kay
The Hope That Kills Us Edited by Adrian Searle
Other stories and other stories by Ali Smith
Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi*
The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison*
No Mean City by H McArthur and H Kingsley Long*
Shorter Scottish Fiction by Robert Louis Stevenson*
The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett*
Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
Fair Helen by Andrew Greig
The Dear, Green Place by Archie Hind*
Fur Sadie by Archie Hind
Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown*
Stepping Out by Cynthia Rogerson
Open the Door! by Catherine Carswell*
The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn*
Scotia Nova edited by Alistair Findlay and Tessa Ransford
After the Dance: selected short stories of Iain Crichton Smith
John Macnab by John Buchan
Another Time, Another Place by Jessie Kesson
Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith*
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan*
Poems Iain Banks Ken MacLeod
Mistaken by Annie S Swan
Me and Ma Gal by Des Dillon*
Tea with the Taliban: poems by Owen Gallagher
A Choosing by Liz Lochhead
The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins*
Born Free by Laura Hird*
the first person and other stories by Ali Smith

That makes 42 books in all (plus 2 if the Violet Jacob and Archie Hind count double.) None were non-fiction, 3 were poetry, 2 SF/Fantasy, 19 + (4x½ + 3 doublers) by men, 13 + (3 doublers and 1 triple) by women, 2 had various authors/contributors.

Wish I Was Here by Jackie Kay

Picador, 2007, 202 p.

Wish I Was Here cover

I was impressed by Kay’s novel Trumpet last year. This is her second book of short stories. I have yet to read her first. Wish I Was Here has very wide margins so you’re actually getting fewer words than you might think but all the stories are insightful and magnificently readable. There are only occasional intrusions of Scottishness into the narratives.

You Go When You Can No Longer Stay relates the breakdown of the twenty-five year relationship between Hilary and Ruth; a breakdown premonitored by Hilary quoting from Martin Amis – one example of which provides this story’s title. Another such bon mot (which actually is nonsense) is, “All marriage turns into a sibling relationship.”

In What is Left Behind1 a (heterosexually) married woman who has monthly trips away for assignations with a female lover remembers all the rooms they have (not) slept in. This one is written in USian from a USian’s viewpoint.

Wish I Was Here2 has a woman whose best friend has recently found a New Lover (also a woman) wait for the couple to arrive at their holiday hotel. In this story what is not said, what the narrator does not think – what she dismisses – is what is most important.

In How to Get Away with Suicide3 Malkie spends his day trying to think of a way to commit suicide while making it look accidental. This is because his wife has left him for another man, and taken the kids. Among his observations are, “Glasgow’s changed; it used to be a dark city and now it’s light,” and, “it’s only love that matters in the end.”

Blinds features a woman who has recently split up with her partner having a conversation with the man who comes to measure up for the blinds in the terraced cottage she’s just moved into. She feels exposed. Of the woman who waves and smiles into her kitchen she thinks, “We all want friendly neighbours, of course. But too friendly neighbours fill us with alarm and dread.”

In The Silence a man asked by his wife to, “give me a minute’s peace at my breakfast,” tells her, “I’ll shut up, then.” And does. For ever.

My Daughter the Fox3 is a metaphor about motherhood and the disruption it brings. It tells the story of a woman who gives birth to a fox. She names her offspring Anya.

What Ever5 gives us four snapshots from the life of Ina McEwan, each one featuring an encounter with bird life, respectively quails, a little tern, a robin and a gull.

In Not the Queen6 Margaret Dorothy Lockhart is a Glaswegian woman who is the spitting image of the Queen. She has been since birth. It isn’t a happy thing to be.

Pruning.7 A woman whose female partner of fifteen years is having an affair with another woman finally loses it. The last line here is deliciously ironic.

The longest and most affecting of these tales is Sonata8 in which a woman on an all-night train journey through an unnamed Eastern European country hears the story of another. Contains perceptions such as, “The ugly have no rights. They don’t even feel the right to be loved. They feel grateful for the simplest of kindnesses,” and, “And what does it all matter, those petty jealousies compared to a life, a love, what does it matter.”

In The Mirrored Twins9 two male mountain climbers who have become an item set out one day to see the mirrored twins of Ben More and Stob Binnein. One of them observes, “If people just came out and walked up here every now and again, there would be less wars.”

Pedant’s corner:- 1 The song lyric, “Sonny, once so true, I love you-ooo,” is quoted. I always understood that to be ”Sunny one so true.”
2 Unless the narrator is again USian the use of “New Years” ought to be New Year.
3 Despite Malkie being Glaswegian the word bairns is used for his children. Also Kenny Dalgleish should be Dalglish.
4 medieval
5 When first encountered the family is referred to as the McEwan’s but later on the same page – correctly – as the McEwans. “It was the site she returned to, what ever.” I can’t see the purpose in rendering whatever as two words.
6 I hate the formulation “Queen of England.” In its first appearance here it may be forgivable as it’s that woman herself looking in the mirror – but she surely knows well enough she is Monarch of many other countries besides. But for Maggie’s fellow Glaswegian husband to say, “not a bloody person in the whole of England wid be able to tell the difference!” strikes me as unlikely as he’d be more than aware that he didn’t live in England but still had the same Queen. On a train journey south Maggie knew Scotland changed into England “but she couldn’t see the difference properly.” Really? No difference in the patterns of fields, in the appearance and dimensions of houses?
7 ass (arse.)
8 “you have those kind of looks” (that kind – or those kinds.)
9 “there would be less wars” (fewer.)

Read Scotland 2014 Overview

Twelve months gone and 29 books “Scottish” books read. (Or 30 if The Member and The Radical count as two; then again perhaps only 27 if A Scots Quair is treated as a single book.) That’s 2½ per month, give or take. And, if you discount the exceptions already mentioned, not a repeat author in the list.

2 were non-fiction; 4 outright SF/Fantasy; 18 were written by men (20 if the trilogy is separated) and 9 by women. (That gender disparity is lessened by 50% if you consider only authors still alive in 2014, though.)

I’m pleased to have caught up with John Galt and have already bought two more of his novels, delighted to have read A Scots Quair at last, made acquaintance with William Graham, Neil M Gunn, Carole Johnstone, Jackie Kay, Agnes Owens, Muriel Spark and Alan Spence and refound Naomi Mitchison. My main discovery, though, was Andrew Greig whose That Summer is the best book by a writer new to me (Scottish or not) since I first encountered Andrew Crumey.

My review of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is still to appear. See later this week, or even tomorrow.

There is apparently a Read Scotland Challenge 2015. I don’t think I’ll make 29 this year. I’ve got a lot of other reading to catch up on.

Trumpet by Jackie Kay

Picador, 1998, 280 p.

Kay is mainly a poet but has published three novels, of which this was the second.

Trumpet cover

Trumpet starts in the aftermath of the death of famous jazz trumpeter Joss Moody. His wife, Millicent, has travelled to Torr, a remote Scottish location, to escape press attention following the revelation of the couple’s secret. The story is told from various viewpoints starting with Millicent’s memories of their relationship. We are with the doctor who examines the body, see their adopted son Colman’s reaction to the news, the sensitive registrar’s concern for the proprieties, the indecision of the funeral director who prepares the corpse, the glee of the journalist, Sophie Stones, who interviews Colman for a projected book, are given a feel for Joss’s engrossment in the music, shown the memories of Moody’s drummer who will not hear a word said against him, of the cleaner who “did” for the Moodys, and finally meet Joss’s elderly mother, whose ongoing existence he had kept from his family.

As the book goes on we return intermittently to Millicent’s, Colman’s and Sophie’s viewpoints, charting Colman’s journey from initial disbelief to a gradual coming to terms with his upbringing.

There are several aperçus (not that you have to agree with all of them,) “Sex is always better if you argue before,” “Loss isn’t an absence after all. It is a presence,” “When the love of your life dies, the problem is not that some part of you dies too, which it does, but that some part of you is still alive,” and lots of Scotticisms to savour; tattie scones, square sausage, Irn Bru (as irn bru), shortbread, black bun, chapping the door and the wonderful to see in a literary context, “His brain is mince.” (Mince = rubbish or useless.)

I confess not to have read any of Kay’s poetry but her ability as a novelist is without question.

Pedant’s corner:
In Millicent’s narratives – windowscreen for windscreen, reeking havoc, grizzly for grisly, Greyfriars bobby (Bobby,) asterix for asterisk – but these may be the character’s spelling choices. What may be a continuity error, “I’ve never locked the door and I’m not starting now,” where a few pages before on arrival at Torr she had locked the door can be attributed to Millie’s disorientation.
Similarly in Colman’s viewpoint we had mowed for mown, regigged for rejigged and Barr’s irn bru. It’s a proper noun, so Irn Bru.
“There has been some sympathetic murmurings.” (have) “Something about the eyes that draw you.” The subject of the verb here is “something” not “eyes.” That would be something draws you, then.
The registrar office should have been a register one – and capitalised – and were there branches of Menzies in London railway stations back in the day?
Twice we had ass for arse and twice asshole for arsehole and there was the strange construction, “She sat put with the girl.”

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