Picador £12.99

Reality, Reality, By Jackie Kay

The humour and sadness of life in the margins

Short story collections sometimes lack unity, betraying their origins in a jumble of different commissions. In Jackie Kay's third collection, two stories stand out a little awkwardly: "The First Lady of Song" first appeared in Jeanette Winterson's anthology of opera-themed stories, Midsummer Nights. A bluesy riff on Jancek's The Makropulos Case, it's a fine piece of work but could have done with the Winterson book's brief opera synopsis to make full sense for the reader. Likewise, "Hadassah" perhaps suffers from being taken from its original context. (It was part of a performance cycle retelling Bible stories.) It is beautifully written but this voice of a trafficked woman feels like an exercise. An ongoing and horrible news story is in danger of turning into a literary cliché.

Other gigs feel more natural. The excellent title story was part-commissioned by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and voices a woman obsessed by TV cookery shows. It's not entirely clear that she's cooking the sumptuous meals she describes, but what is going down the hatch is the whisky. "Make that a double ... Even though I don't live in Scotland any more, I wouldn't drink anything but Scottish whisky. Good malt is allowed for dessert."

Another story about consumption, "Mini Me", voices a dieter for whom virtually every day is "Day One". "I look at masell in the mirror and say how did you let yoursell go? But ah canny be hanging aroond asking existential questions – is the self something that kin be let go and if so kin ye still be staunding?" It exemplifies the mix of humour and sadness that characterises Kay's best stories. Without this tone, the subject matter of "These are not my clothes", about an elderly woman in a care home, aware of but unable to protest about the staff's nastiness, would be unbearable.

"Grace and Rose", by contrast, is entirely upbeat: the tale of a lesbian wedding on Shetland. There is nothing to cloud their joy, no sign of disapproval, whether local ("Our wedding is the talk of the islands") or familial ("My father walked me down the aisle. He had tears in his een ... To think of all the years I worried what he'd think of me!"). And, of course, "Da whisky wis flowin oot da door."

Nearly all the stories in Reality, Reality have a first-person narrator. The voices are female, usually marginalised, whether by age, race, sexuality or class, and sometimes unlikeable. Although the young tend to get the best narratives in life, Kay shows the poignancy and quieter joy of getting older – and nowhere better than in "Owl", a beautifully compressed tale of two lifelong friends for whom the childhood glimpse of an owl became a defining moment. Barn and Tawny decide that if life begins at 40, then they are really only 10 and nine years old. "'We had huge wings, didn't we Tawn?' I said, a little sadly, the river slow beside me. 'You're starting to sound very middle-aged,' Tawn said. 'Remember you're only 10. And you do still have wings. You're going to need them any time soon.'"

"The White Cot" and "The Winter Visitor", with its malign Mary Poppins figure, have a tinge of the supernatural, and "Mind Away" features another elderly woman on the verge of dementia, whose missing words are mysteriously transferred to a bemused local doctor. The unifying factor in these captivating stories comes from Kay's supple mastery of voice, and her deep concern for the lost, helpless and overlooked.

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