This collection of short stories was the first A.L.Kennedy that I'd read. I'd heard good things about her - fine Scottish writer and so on - but I have to admit to a certain reluctance to read writers whose reputations are preceded by their nationality. Surely the best writers transcend roots, and there's so much brilliant fiction out there that I don't want to start ghettoising by choosing writers whose reputation rests on their nationality. Last time I did that was reading Louise Welsh's acclaimed thriller set in Edinburgh, which I found mediocre by non parochial standards.
Still, A.L Kennedy's work has been garlanded with praise by national as well as Scottish critics. She won the Costa Prize last year with Day, and her book covers are peppered with plaudits from critics.
Short stories are a difficult genre to get right. Atmosphere, character development and quality of prose take precedence over plot since there's usually no room to develop any intricate story. And the word that springs to mind on reading this collection is 'dark'. Followed by 'strange'. Not that the unconventional is doomed to failure in short stories - for every brilliant conjurer of magical 'traditional' short stories - Chekhov or Calvino, say - there is an equally sparkling unconventional master of the form - Foster Wallace for example. And 'darkness' per se shouldn't be offputting in a talented writer - look at Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Camus and Sartre. But A.L.Kennedy's bleakness and weirdness isn't in the same league.
The first story in the collection, A Perfect Possession, is one of the better ones and is certainly chilling. The realisation that the narrator is a cold, harsh, cruel parent with no insight genuinely causes a metaphorical shudder, especially with the rational-sounding, fully self justified explanations of the rigid, controlling methods employed in child rearing. It makes deeply unpleasant reading but does deliver that visceral kick.
The other story that stands out is Friday Payday. This is again bleak and harrowing, especially because of the matter-of-fact narration, and the way events transpire is realistic - for a few minutes, one wonders whether Kennedy will take the easy way out, with a saviour offering a gilded release from the hellish existence. But no, it all pans out in a plausible - if depressing - way. And causes another shiver.
In other stories in the collection, the undercurrent of violence, malice or dissatisfaction is replaced with plain strangeness. Kennedy is better at the first than the second - when she writes in her deadpan way, skittering around the edges of dysfunctional relationships or troubled characters - Bracing Up is another example of this - she achieves what she sets out to do; the uneasiness bubbles away beneath the surface, leaving the reader almost queasy with anticipation. But when her stories turn to the plain peculiar, as in the odd On Having More Sense, there is a sense of anti-climax. Her prose is pretty plain - there is no breathtaking wordsmith beauty in it (that hug a reader gives oneself when a pithy phrase is unimprovably perfect), and little incisiveness or wit, so that everything rests on atmosphere. And whereas the jagged, brittle moodiness of some stories works well, those which are just unconventional for the sake of it fall flat.
The best stories in this collection merit four stars at best while the worst barely deserve a mediocre three. So I give this collection three and a half stars. So far, for me, Kennedy hasn't lived up to the hype around her name.
I'm not a huge fan of short stories, but each of these managed to leave me intrigued and gasping for more. Kennedy exposes the minds of the characters in a way that few authors can achieve in a novel. By the first page, I was desparate to know more about them and could barely put the book down! A deep, but entertaining read. If you want some light-hearted fun, don't read this.