In "Sympathy", my favourite of the short stories in A L Kennedy's latest collection, two strangers meet in a hotel and spend the night having sex - and talking. Their dialogue is all Kennedy offers us, but so masterful is the writing that "Sympathy" is a sexier, sadder, darker narrative than a lesser writer could deliver with the whole novelistic box of tricks at their disposal. Kennedy's facility with dialogue is one of the hallmarks of her writing, reflecting as it does her ability to get inside the heads and under the skins of her characters, whether they are revealing themselves in their casual or not-so-casual interactions with others, or whether we overhear one of their sidelong, deadpan interior monologues. But what may seem artlessly naturalistic is quite capable of breaking the heart, and thus the hearts of the people in her stories are bruised or fractured.
Kennedy's brilliant Day, the story of a Second World War airman, won the Costa Prize in 2007 and brought her work to a wider audience. This
is very much to the good, because she has a reputation for being dark and a little difficult - accessible isn't a word you'd attach to a writer who favours an androgynous pair of initials and has a talent for putting interviewers on the back foot. A characteristic of her writing is the opening that baffles. Kennedy likes to keep her readers on their toes, or perhaps, more accurately, she likes to induce in them the same nauseous sensation of alienation from which so many of her characters suffer. In Paradise, her alcoholic protagonist spends a lot of time painstakingly reconstructing the blacked-out events of the previous night from the internal evidence, and we, too, as readers, are required to pay close attention to the clues Kennedy provides, given that she prefers to approach her fictional lives and worlds from an oblique angle.
If we are discomfited and ill at ease, that is just the lesson she intends to teach us about ourselves. You don't have to be an alcoholic, after all, to feel that a public façade of normality, of OK-ness, just barely covers an inside self which is (take your pick) panicky, desperate, grief-stricken, libidinous, greedy, raging, lost. Peeling back the skin to expose the hurt beneath is what very much interests Kennedy, both because it is her way
of telling the truth about the human condition, and because it is when we make ourselves vulnerable to each other that we can be most hurt - and most loved.
Which is to say that, despite her dark side, Kennedy also believes in the possibility of love, of intimacy and of a mutual recognition that briefly closes the disjunction between inner and outer self. She is, in some sense, a romantic - fans of Day will know that it is, among other things, a surprising and very affecting love story. We are able to reach and touch each other, though sometimes the touch is a way of wounding, too. Sex comes into such moments a fair bit, of course, and Kennedy is very good indeed at describing it.
In "Another", a widowed mother, by a piece of luck you might call miraculous, or even sacramental, begins an affair with the man she should have married all along: "And then at breakfast there would be no observable suggestion of the way they would hunt each other down to the bone in tight, wet, beautiful agreement, or of his mouth so very open above her." Naturally, sex is also the way we can be most injured. In "Edinburgh", a rejected lover remembers: Her hands on my back, as if she was listening to me, reading. Holding each other so much we could hardly undress. Her eyes closed. Stockings, not tights. Flat stomach. Goldenish cunt.
Sweet word and it fits. Fits the line and shape and promise of all my life. All my fucking life. Which, typically, manages to be erotic, touching and poignant all at the same time. As this passage suggests, Kennedy doesn't have any trouble ventriloquising a male sensibility; in fact, one of the oddnesses of her writing is that in the stories from a woman's perspective it can take a while to identify the gender of the narrator. Perhaps that is a weakness, but, in any event, she is almost freakishly good at men, especially the old-fashioned, real variety. In "As God Made Us", a group of woefully injured former soldiers visits a swimming pool and Kennedy, inside the head of Dan, an ex-squaddie, suggests with exquisite literary restraint a world of horror and remorse. In "Marriage", a harassed and put-upon husband confounds our expectations in a way that is all the more shocking for being transgressively sexy.
Kennedy's characters try their best to keep calm and carry on, but in What Becomes, as in her previous work, their internal wounds have a habit of making themselves felt. It's a testament to her talent and her humanity that these broken lives are life-affirming in the way that only good art can be.
Laura Tennant is editor of the London Magazine