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No dying of this light: All the Rage by A L Kennedy

The 12 stories in A L Kennedy’s latest collection revolve around ordinary people trying to cope with the emotional debris from break-ups, accidents, violence and betrayal.

All the Rage
A L Kennedy
Jonathan Cape, 224pp, £16.99

One of the best films of 2013 was the Chilean comedy-drama Gloria. It tells the story of a 58-year-old divorcee, cloaked in cherry lip gloss and Deirdre Barlow specs, who finds herself untethered, late in life, frequenting frisky Santiago night spots, yoga classes and catalogue-perfect seaside resorts, driven by the prospect of a second chance of love.

In “The Practice of Mercy”, one of 12 new stories by A L Kennedy – arguably Britain’s most industrious writer – Gloria is bequeathed a kindred spirit. Dorothy is a lonely sexagenarian, at sea among the strange trees, misshapen doorways and “contagious-looking biscuits” of the European continent. She has been deceived: “The current generation of over-sixties were mainly occupied with internet shopping, exotic holidays, divorce and unprotected sex,” she has read in glossy magazines, “perhaps in that order, perhaps not.”

Kennedy, whose novels include So I Am Glad (1995) and the Costa Award-winning Day (2007), has now published seven collections of short fiction. She also performs stand-up comedy, writes plays, and between 2009 and 2013 maintained a blog for the Guardian about the writing life. Her narrative style is easily recognisable. She presses closely on her characters, occluding plot points in favour of sensation, interruption and reflection, drip-feeding context to the reader as her stories unfold.

Unlike Gloria, who begins to take joy in herself and her situation, Dorothy’s is a state of ongoing malaise. She is irritated by the tourists, poor produce and pandering locals on her holiday abroad. After finishing a “foreign-tasting coffee”, she returns to her hotel room, where she reconciles with the partner we had not known was there. “Unexpected damage had occurred, and they’d thought they would have managed better after their years of practice, but they hadn’t.” Dorothy’s relationship endures on a knife edge. Others are not so lucky.

Throughout All the Rage, struggle with the emotional debris from break-ups, accidents, violence and betrayal. In “Knocked”, a young boy wakes in hospital with a cracked skull after being trodden on by a horse, uncannily wise to the pain that will define his adult life. In “Takes You Home” the reverse occurs – a grieving widower is undone, made childlike, reduced to facing basic questions of origin, class and identity as he empties the house he shared with his wife.

At times, Kennedy’s virtuosity takes over. “The Effects of Good Government on the City” and “A Thing Unheard-of” are overstocked with breathless interjections, displaced dialogue, parallel narratives and jumpy, single-sentence paragraphs. The title story recalls the 2011 anti-cuts marches in London. When a loud, fast-moving train rips past him and his wife, Mark is tempted to suicide, “an alternative to marriage”, unable as he is to let go of his angsty protester girlfriend. A more effective depiction of rage comes in “Baby Blue”, in which the narrator, a professional, middle-aged woman, finds herself lost in a French city, gazing on falling snow. “We’re an odd species,” she observes, “embracing ruined water, a gradually sifting possibility of disappearance.”

Only this isn’t true. Unlike Mark, she confesses her need for self-deception and rejects the literary setting. “Sod that,” she says, “it’s all nonsense,” turning from the Joycean snowfall to an irritating assistant in the shop where she is purchasing a dildo. The need to invent a language in which to convey one’s disappointment cedes to “a setting unsuitable for rage” – the real world, a sex shop – where she is still lost and where “uninterrupted fury is a constant”. In time, Kennedy reveals a little more about her narrator, who recently ended a relationship and has undergone surgery (possibly a mastectomy) alone at a nearby hospital. Like Kennedy, she cannot help but tell stories. To her, they represent a thing worth cherishing: “an appetite for miracles promised”.

A L Kennedy will appear at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 4 and 5 April, in association with the New Statesman. More information: cambridgeliteraryfestival.com (tel: 01223 300 085). Photo: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism