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A. L Kennedy Biography

london novel stories short

Nationality: Scottish.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Looking for the Possible Dance. London, Secker and Warburg, 1993.

So I Am Glad. London, Cape, 1995.

Original Bliss. London, Jonathan Cape, 1997.

Everything You Need. London, Jonathan Cape, 1999.

Short Stories

Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains. London, Secker andWarburg, 1990.

Now That You're Back. London, Cape, 1994.

Other

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (screenplay). London, BritishFilm Institute, 1997.

Editor, with Hamish Whyte. The Ghost of Liberace. Aberdeen:Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 1993.

Editor, with James McGonigal. A Sort of Hot Scotland. Aberdeen: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 1994.

* * *

Throughout her work, Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy has explored the potentially infinite spaces within "ordinary" people's minds. Kennedy's novels and short stories focus on the mental and emotional confinement that is caused by isolation, psychic and physical violence in personal relationships, and enclosure within the ritualized routines of "the average shape of the day." These conditions are frequently met with an obsessive striving for control and the repetition of violence. Yet Kennedy's works also express a yearning for connection and an almost religious sense of the expansiveness of human life as glimpses are gained of a potentiality that exceeds the trammels of the quotidian. Her characters frequently represent a desire to perceive a larger, more harmonious pattern beyond both their own psychic turmoil and the apparent political and social chaos of the late twentieth century.

These concerns are introduced in Kennedy's first collection of short stories, Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains. Here, in her already notably economic style, Kennedy writes of "small people" who, "withered by lack of belief," "live their lives in the best way they can with generally good intentions and still leave absolutely nothing behind." In her second collection of short stories, Now That You're Back, Kennedy, returning to the minds of "small people," explores the fine distinctions between normality and perversity as she probes the points at which isolation and estrangement produce what is perceived as obsession and deviance. As Kennedy ventriloquizes her characters' voices, several of the stories being written in the form of dramatic monologues, she confers upon them an impression of bodilessness, a fitting signifier of their disconnection from the world. Yet her characters seek that correspondence through which "a spasm of what I might call completeness" may be attained.

Kennedy retains her focus on subtle gradations of psychic spaces in her first novel, Looking for the Possible Dance, where she explores the way in which her protagonist's relationship with her father inscribes that with her lover. Here, as in her other works, Kennedy's exploration of parental legacy is allusive rather than diagnostic as she displays the proximity between pleasure and pain, particularly the pleasure that is sought through self-denial. Through one of the novel's central structural metaphors, that of the dance, Kennedy weaves together several of the novel's main concerns. Margaret's father's words at a Methodist ceilidh are echoed in her reflection that the search for meaningful political opposition in Britain in the 1980s was "looking for the possible dance, the step, the move to beat them all." The possibility that the discrete spaces that individuals occupy may be choreographed into an overarching pattern is adumbrated by the novel's concluding image: "Margaret walks to one door and sinks into brilliant air, becoming first a moving shadow, then a curve, a dancing line."

The concerns of Kennedy's earlier works are strikingly elaborated in her novel, So I Am Glad. Like the characters of her short stories, Kennedy's narrator, Jennifer Wilson, has learned "to enjoy a small, still life," achieving a "calmness" that is "empty space … a pause." Having been made a voyeur, as a child, of her parents' violent sexual practices, she now pathologizes other people's emotions as "moles … violent, tunnelling mammals." Jennifer's desire to free herself from her body and its emotional history is facilitated by her work as a radio commentator, a "professional enunciator." The novel recounts her attempt to discover the identity of her lover who, it transpires, is Cyrano de Bergerac, reincarnated in late-twentieth-century Scotland. This fantastic device enables Kennedy to explore further a number of the concerns of her earlier works. De Bergerac becomes a vehicle for metaphysical speculation that is the more poignant as it is incorporated into Jennifer's mourning for his inevitable loss and her search for the words to articulate this. Through de Bergerac's estranged perspective, he is able to comment on the "madness" of the late twentieth century, defamiliarizing horrors to which, it is implied, the reader may have become acculturated. De Bergerac's history of dueling is extended through his verbal parrying with Jennifer as he explains, "The point is that single moment when you truly touch another person. You reach to them with a word, a thought, a gesture." The duel codifies the desire for violence that is elsewhere in the narrative less successfully contained, whether in scenes of sadomasochistic sex or the political atrocities that are the subject of Jennifer's news broadcasts.

In So I Am Glad, as in Kennedy's earlier works, the movement between the personal and the political, between the poetic and the polemic, is uneven, the power of Kennedy's work lying in her painterly detailing of psychic spaces rather than in the large brush strokes with which she comments on the political turbulence of the late twentieth century. Her work is, however, already notable for its combination of wit, precision, and restraint with bold imaginative gestures.

Original Bliss, Kennedy's next novel, is a tale of abuse, lust, and longing as Helen Brindle, a middle-aged Glaswegian caught in a painful marital relationship, turns from her cruel husband to a German sex guru for fulfillment. Gradually, however, she becomes repelled by both men, and discovers that she can depend only on herself and on God. This quest for redemption amid spiritual squalor also plays itself out in Everything You Need, in which young Mary Lamb comes to the writers' colony of Foal Island on a fellowship. The island's inhabitants are all writers, a depressed lot given to rather disgusting fantasies. This is particularly true of Nathan Staples, who will be Mary's advisor for the period of her fellowship—and who, as we learn early in the book, is also her father.

—Joanna Price

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