BOOK REVIEW / A daughter, a lover and a stranger on the train: Looking for the possible dance by A L Kennedy, Secker pounds 7.99

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YOU CAN tell that A L Kennedy is a writer worth respecting from her sensitivity to small but potent things like prepositions. The young heroine of her first full-length fiction, Looking for the possible dance, works as an assistant at a Community Link Centre in Glasgow. She often, we are told, feels on the brink of making real contact with people when they sense a slight difference about her and their faces 'would close with a sharp, wee look and they would push her back beyond their dignity'. That final phrase, with its arresting elision of 'beneath their dignity' and 'beyond them' (in the sense of not being able to make her out) beautifully conveys how incomprehension can merge into, or be confused with, hostility and distrust.

Putting a slight but revealing strain on prepositions is one of the ways Kennedy's prose achieves its subtle evocation of how people stand in relation to one another, both on a personal and more broadly social level. The novel could, with a nod to

D H Lawrence, be subtitled Daughters and Lovers, since Margaret's intense attachment to her father (who brought her up alone and for whose happiness she has always felt helplessly responsible) makes her wary of committing herself fully to her boyfriend, Colin. Her father's death fails to ease the problem: 'She couldn't imagine him in the earth, nor in anything other than the present tense.' In the earth; in the present tense: creating a flicker of physicalising equivalence, the repeated preposition intimates how palpable and unabstract a presence her father remains to her. But then he and Margaret go back a long way: 'Twenty-three years. As long as a marriage, maybe two', that sly tug of humour at the end a typical downbeat Kennedy touch.

With its intricately layered structure, the novel is also assured on a larger scale. Travelling by train to London, Margaret ponders, dreams and tries to fathom out why she is leaving Glasgow, possibly for good. Flashbacks, within which there are cryptic, unsettling previews of disaster-to-come ('In his future, Colin has this memory'), mesh with her present circumstances on the train, where she befriends James, a badly handicapped young man who is 'arranged like a basket of flowers, a limb display' on the seat beside her. By the end of this reflective journey south, she is in a position to admit to herself that she does genuinely want to make the return trip.

Not all the strands of the book are equally successful. The friendship with James is too strenuously heart-warming and funny-sad, and their parting, where James, in his struggle to wave back from the platform, inadvertently loses the piece of paper with her address on it, would be all too at home in some maudlin movie. Infinitely preferable is the tough delicacy with which Kennedy teases out the heroine's tricky relations not only with Colin and her father but with her boss - the odious/pathetic Mr Lawrence, with his alcoholic wife and his romantic yearnings for Margaret which, unreciprocated, curdle to an ugly desire for revenge.

Kennedy, one of the Chosen Twenty in the 1993 Best of Young British Novelists promotion, sets the story against a depressed contemporary landscape where it is unremarkable that an arts graduate should be flogging satellite television or that a community centre is regarded as an anachronism even by its manager, since 'communities are being phased out as barriers to enterprise and foreign travel'. The Glasgow loan sharks, whose vengeance on Colin brings the novel to a shocking, violent climax, further debase the idea of community by cynically pretending to offer it a service. In an unflashy but finely felt way, this novel brings its quirky canniness to bear on a wide range of human relations.