Dark portraits in the gallery

in medias res

A L Kennedy Now that you’re back
Vintage 1995 (1994)

Opening a collection of short stories is a little like getting into a lift (or elevator, if you prefer) — you never know who’ll get in, for how long they’ll ride, whether you’re likely to engage with them or what relationship, if any, they are likely to have with each other. Your curiosity may or may not be piqued, you may wrinkle your nose at the smell or be embarrassed at the enforced intimacy, however transient. What you do know is that, like any passenger in the lift, you’re unlikely to be vouchsafed someone’s life story, that your experience will only produce brief and probably blurry mental snapshots of your fellow travellers.

And so it is with this collection of A L Kennedy vignettes. In virtually every tale the reader arrives in medias res — you pass through gates straight into the midst of the action (such as it may be), trying to guess at characters, motivation, context, relationships, tone; and as each story concludes you never quite know if you’ve got a handle on it all, if your grasping at the situation attains something substantial or merely thin air. Sometimes a story reflects this seeming lack of substance: in ‘Failing to Fall’ the narrator allows others to dictate what happens to him but remains lost and directionless when not told to get into a taxi to who-knows-where. In ‘Armageddon Blue’ the protagonist is, literally, all at sea with her life, having cast off her previous relationships and — more in hope than in certainty — seeking both landfall and answers in the near future. And in the title story of the collection a young man is looking for his lost self — will he find it back with what remains of his family at the edge of the world where the land merges with the sea and the sky? We sincerely hope so, though even with the final “It’s all right” we can never be sure.

Within these taut and often terse mini-portraits we range the world, from Kennedy’s adopted home of Glasgow to London, from Wales to Paris and from rural America to an ocean cruise. In similar scenes we glimpse individuals — a fatuous guru, a twisted puppeteer, an underage prostitute, a ballet dancer — all with hopes and fears but each one ultimately lonely or alone, contemplating abandonment, past and present abuse, creeping age and certain death. Frighteningly Kennedy is able to get into the heads of fundamentalists, sociopaths and psychopaths and see the world from their warped point of view, from the controlling parents in ‘A Perfect Possession’ to the committed guerrilla in ‘The Boy’s Fat Dog’, from the fan-verging-on-stalker in ‘Warming My Hands And Telling Lies’ to the serial killer’s lover in ‘Mixing With The Folks Back Home’.

You might think that it’s all bleakness in these tales, but there is some leavening. We have a perfect take on the paranormal in ‘Christine’, humour in ‘On Having More Sense’ and satire in the rather strange ‘The Mouseboks Family Dictionary’. But there is something sad about the collection as a whole, hinting at the strangeness that resides in every one of us, however much a view of normalcy we might try to project to the rest of the world. The problem is I’m going to be a little anxious about getting into a lift in future if the world is really inhabited by disturbed or damaged people such as the ones that Kennedy so effectively portrays here. It’s a tribute to her language and descriptive skills that we almost believe they inhabit our real world rather than merely residing in her imagination. Now that you’re back is an impressive but disturbing portrait gallery, of characters both haunted and haunting.

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9 thoughts on “Dark portraits in the gallery

    1. I’ve enjoyed her reviews and articles in the broadsheets (particularly the Guardian) and have felt for some time I needed to read her fiction. This was my first foray and it was worth the effort — hope it will be for you too!

  1. I struggle with short stories. Actually, I struggle to start reading short stories. The few collections I have read I have really enjoyed. My problem is that I like to get lost in a book for a period of time. There is nothing I love more than to discover a series of books to lose myself in for months at a time. Maybe I should overcome my prejudices and try this out. Thanks for the wonderful review.
    PS I prefer ‘lift’, although in my book I wrote elevator

    1. I’m absolutely with you on this, Dylan. If the lift analogy works then it’s much more satisfying to initiate a long-term acquaintance than to nod at somebody in passing whom you may or may not see again.

      Exceptions for me are ideas-led stories that are closer to essays, as with Borges, or the more ephemeral posts you get on blogs that are short and easy to digest (that being the quintessential nature of the blogosphere); and posts by your good self are often good examples of this anecdotal approach to story-telling.

      PS I included ‘elevator’ for the benefit of transatlantic readers who might be momentarily confused. I’m minded of the occasion when my partner was a guest speaker in the States and a gasp went round the audience when she mentioned ‘throwing down a fag and stepping on it’ — a good example of two cultures separated by a shared language.

      PPS I also seem to recall you tag some of your posts with ‘humor’ as well as ‘humour’…

      1. Guilty, m’lud. You’ve got me bang to rights 😉
        I’ve worked in European and Global roles in the past so I’m very conscious of trying to communicate in a form understandable to the widest possible audience. And thank you for your kind words.
        Your story reminds me if a time when an American colleague was asked how he would overcome his wife’s anger at missing an anniversary. To the astonishment of the mostly British group he said “I’ll just give her a kiss and a pat on the fanny and she’ll be fine…”

        1. Oh the shame of it…

          It’s like the initial UK shock in times gone by at the item called a fanny pack. I suppose bum bag doesn’t cause the same frisson in the US, though North Americans might once have assumed that only tramps wore these. (Does anyone use them any more, by the way? I find ‘man bags’ much more useful, and more elegant.)

  2. It does seem an interesting ride, although I seriously doubt whether the disturbed, damaged or defective people in it will be able to exceed the bounds of actuality.
    As to whether it is an elevator to give one a lift, or apartments which leave one flat …

    1. Thanks for your comments, Col, succinct as always!
      Sadly, many of Kennedy’s individuals seem all too real to me, reminding me of many people I’ve come across through the years…

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