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.