"I chose...responsibly": fiction preview

A sneak-peak at Jackie Kay’s short story, "Mind away", featured exclusively in this week’s magazine.

We've all been there. The frantic scramble for misplaced keys amid a heady morning rush never fails to infuriate. "'The brain's a sieve. Maybe not a sieve, maybe a...what's the name of the thing with bigger holes?' ". But what if you found yourself forgetting not just where you placed your keys, not just words, but whole worlds? This is the struggle that shapes Jackie Kay's Mind Away, a dreamlike story in which the symptoms of dementia weave together a mother, daughter and doctor. Published exclusively in this week's New Statesman, it anticipates the release of Kay's latest collection, Reality Reality, a series of short stories which place the banalities and strange obsessions of everyday life into captivating tales.

Kay is loved by readers for her ability to conjure strong, believable voices that are rooted in accessible human experiences - in Mind Away, a mother and daughter attempt to reassemble what has been lost through their own whimsical imaginings. Though saddened, the daughter resolutely attempts to jog her mother's memory, prompting her to recall vivid sights and sensations from the past: "'What happened to that dress?', I asked, 'One night your father took me to the Locarno. I remember I was wearing it then...I felt like a million dollars'".

But the frustrating reality of the present is an ever-lingering spectre: "'Years ago is not the problem. Yesterday is the problem. Today is the problem. Years ago are piling up!'". To deal with the present, the daughter attempts a writerly solution - it is here that Kay demonstrates her ability to render multi-perspective narratives with real finesse, as the story wanders into the failing mind of a doctor, shocked at his own symptoms of memory deterioration.

Kay's message is one that celebrates the power of the imagination to ease the pain of reality, and the potential of stories to be healers in themselves. As ever, she deals compassionately with moving subject matter, and even leaves room for a witty take on a situation that we often assume offers little cause for optimism: "'What have we got to lose? Isn't life an awfully big adventure? Who was it that said that again? I've forgotten'". It's a timely endeavour, since more people than ever are feeling the effects of dementia and Alzheimer's, both as sufferers and carers.

Mind Away is accompanied by an illustration from Liam Stevens and appears in this week's New Statesman available from newsagents now.

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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