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
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
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.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine