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.