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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
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.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot