Jonathan Cape £16.99

Book reviews: All The Rage by A L Kennedy

 

A L Kennedy’s books should come with a warning: “These stories may break your heart.”

The blurb on this latest collection accurately describes the context here as “the battlefield of the heart”, and indeed many of the characters are damaged warriors; mostly lost, sometimes broken. But there is nothing relentless or bludgeoning about the writing. As well as being one of the most consistently dazzling writers of her generation, a Costa Prize-winner and twice selected among Granta’s Best Young Novelists, Kennedy is also a stand-up comedian, and that comic voice is prominent here. Her ear for the surreal details of a hotel breakfast, a first-date interior monologue, or a female-friendly sex shop, will have many readers weeping with suppressed laughter. But be warned, there is usually a killer punch within a page or two. You could say that these stories are laugh-out-loud sad.

To start with, her characters tend to be raw and excoriated by past pain. In “Because It’s a Wednesday” (“Because it’s a Wednesday, he’s shagging [his cleaner] …”), a man thinks about the “vulnerability” of his fingernails. In “These Small Pieces”, another lost person ends up in a church, wondering what would be the reaction should he suddenly admit: “I have been disappointed in my heart.” In the title story, trains through a station are “long, high blurs of weight and violence that gashed the air and ravaged past …. They made him feel undefended, almost naked.” In the same story, his wife drinks red wine “until it stained her mouth to an injury”. In “Takes You Home”, a bereaved man clears his flat, contemplating the “cruel rooms” he leaves behind.

Couples, meanwhile, are agonisingly gentle to one another: “They don’t assault, not ever. That’s a promise.” “We were the opposite of hurt.” Often – but not always – they end up hurt anyway.

My favourite story is “Baby Blue”, in which a single woman in a strange city finds herself very Britishly trying to leave a sex- toy emporium without causing offence. From the outset, “A wrong sun was behind the curtains … my skin smelt frightened”, so we know what we are in for. But the author keeps wrong-footing the reader with comedy. I defy anyone not to be gobsmacked by laughter at the paragraphs about “some further contraption with which to astonish my privacy … would I foist one on a gay man? As what, a novelty letter box?” The narrator contrasts the Carry On-style selling of a sex-like experience, of the assistant’s chummy attitude of “girls together and crying with ice cream this evening and new lip gloss”, with what her experience of real love, real sex, feels like. Her memory of real love and real sex. The pay-off is devastating. She is lost and alone, she says, because “I’ve gone to trouble without you ...”.

Don’t worry: not all the stories are as bleak as this. “The Practice of Mercy”, about another lost woman killing time in a foreign city, has an ambiguous but quite possibly happy ending, and some of the best lines. Being a bit odd, this character likes, when in foreign hotels, to choose “dishes of weird broth, unpardonable chicken sausages, potatoes to which sad accidents must have happened, strange grains and badly transfigured eggs … ‘Excuse me, do these taste bizarre, or have a disturbing texture, in which case I’ll take several?’” She watches a dog chasing fish: it “snapped at the water, pressed its head full under and then shook itself free again, empty-mouthed, in a big startle of light that arced all round before landing in rings and sparks.” And only A L Kennedy could make the link, in one short paragraph, from “banana” through “potassium” to “outrage” and “frenzy”. It’s magnificent.

Her writing is unmistakable. Odd conjunctions of words are distinctively hers: the “dark and nice flicker in his look”; the “warm and clever shape” of a beloved head; “That was sweet and you”; the dog “was just breathing on his hand, which was nice for him and good”. This last in a beautiful and sweet story about a small boy and his new dog, whom he loves (uh-oh).

Let’s end, like the collection, on an upbeat: “This Man”, a joyful little story about first-date awkwardness, and what women are really thinking. Men, it is true: by the time that you have butchly rearranged the chairs, she has already spooled forward to “domestic horrors”, that horrible parka you will wear, and “spats over too much pickle that will have dampened the nasty bread”. Nevertheless, just sometimes a person gets a lucky break – or an unexpected kiss that makes them reconsider everything.

AL Kennedy’s stories are a little like love: no matter how many times they break your heart, you still come back for more. This collection proves, once again, that it is always worth it. 

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
books
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'