Warming My Hands and Telling Lies

Dinah Birch

  • So I Am Glad by A.L. Kennedy
    Cape, 280 pp, £9.99, May 1995, ISBN 0 224 03974 1
  • Now That You’re Back by A.L. Kennedy
    Vintage, 248 pp, £5.99, May 1995, ISBN 0 09 945711 3

One of the most convincing inclusions in Granta’s list of the 20 best young British novelists, A.L. Kennedy has composed a distinctive voice out of youth and national identity. She was born in Dundee, and now lives in Glasgow; Scottishness informs her fiction. This is partly a matter of a characteristic introspection, the tradition of spiritual autobiography that generated the novel in the first place and has never, in the hard climate of Scotland, quite lost its original impetus:

Little comes more naturally to me and my kind than guilt. Devoid of feeling, yes. Devoid of guilt, never. I’m sure even Scottish sociopaths are soaked with remorse, it’s in our air.

     Confession time again, then. Here we go.

The severe outlines of Kennedy’s writing, together with its relentless self-concern, hardly seem calculated to make an immediate appeal. She does not offer the pleasures or complexities of lyrical language, and her sharp, spare sentences can suggest an alienating aggression towards both characters and readers. What might be still more off-putting is the sense of righteousness that rarely deserts those who confess often. The open acknowledgment of guilt implies its opposite, in a paradox that is fully understood within the terms of Kennedy’s fiction. Again and again, the crimes she most wants to expose (the injuries of poverty, the abuse of children, the contemporary mire of pollution and political chicanery) are not personal vices, but social injustices where inequity is a matter of common consent – no one would deny the damage they cause. Yet Kennedy is a larger and very much more winning writer than these fashionably bleak tactics would predict. She is formidably intelligent, and the flat surfaces of her prose conceal the flexibility of a quick literary imagination. In an age that still likes to see itself as neo-Romantic, she is a curiously Augustan figure. Her sense of moral certitude in an oppressive world, her interest in cruelty and the grotesque, her bitterly playful spirit of self-examination, often recall moments in Swift and Pope. Brooding intimacy and satirical fantasy are not separate writerly functions, and one of the developing strengths of A.L. Kennedy’s work is to remind us of the connection.

Her writing persistently returns to themes of transgressive sexuality, violence, guilt and loss. It has the intensity of shameful memory, closed into an inner world answering only to secret imaginative rules. What this often recalls is the pained egotism of adolescence. It also brilliantly remembers the arrogance that underpins the anxiety of the young. Pushed to the margin, exploited or exploiting, inadequate and often uncharming, they nevertheless know themselves to be, unquestionably, among the elect. Their suffering identifies them, gives them expression and finally vindicates them. All Kennedy’s sinners are justified.

The past 16 years of Conservative government have given Scots, particularly young Scots, many reasons to feel that they have been placed on the edge of a powerful institution that is being run elsewhere, in the interests of others. Public anger and private inwardness have proved a fertile mix for an aggrieved but assertive generation of Scottish writers. To be set aside gives a compelling incentive for fiction, a desire to find language for what might otherwise be silenced. In her first collection of short stories, Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains (1990), Kennedy explains: she is writing for the forgotten, small people with small lives. A pensioner, lonely and poor, talks about her passion for photography:

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