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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: (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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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis