Wish I Was Here, by Jackie Kay

Cracked mirrors of love
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The Independent Culture

The blurb for Wish I Was Here calls it a book about love - about lovers at their most vulnerable, relationships ending or long lost. Jackie Kay's touching and witty stories seem to illustrate the proverb that says in every affair there is one who kisses, and one who offers the cheek. "She'd say, we have to be getting along now, and I'd say, Just two more minutes," says the narrator of "What Is Left Behind". She tells us more about the lover than the loved.

Many of the stories describe women who have been together "for so long that we look as if we could have knitted each other up". They wear each other's clothes, dream each other's dreams, and look alike. In "Sonata", a beautiful, lonely woman recalls how she and her partner "loved each other so much something about us became the same... too intimate to have [sex], too close to each other's skin".

The naivety of the voices is moving, sad, and often crackling with empathetic shame. In the title story, there are shades of Tracey Temple's Prescott diaries: "We had another glass of retsina, and a bit of a longish kiss," she recalls: "My face has had a right blast of the sun so I look not bad." She is waiting in a Greek hotel for the woman she loves to arrive, with her new girlfriend. She plans to give them a lovely surprise.

What happens is never revealed. Most stories remain frustratingly unresolved. There are other themes - like the comfort of scones, or silence "like snow sitting on a wall". Whether written in Glaswegian dialect or broken English, there are funny, poetic, colloquial touches. Suicidal Malkie heart-wrenchingly admits: "[My ex-wife] was right - you should hang the fucking towels up or else when you come to use them again they're damp and you're full of regret."

The common theme is the self: in a woman whose life is blighted by her similarity to the Queen, or a man whose children have a new stepfather. "If someone's pretending to be you," he wonders, "then who are you?" Even the style - with speech rarely contained by quotation marks - confuses the author with the speaker, the reader with the narrator.

The final story shows this most clearly, and is the most hopeful. Two male hikers find that their lives are transfigured by love. Lost on a mountain, it is this redemptive closeness that will save them. It is a story about love, yes. But more than that, it is about who we are in the world - and how we make that all right.

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