The life of the writer is subjected to intensive and scathing analysis in this highly interesting (if more than a little overextended) third novel by the young Scots author of Original Bliss (1999), etc.
Kennedy’s two protagonists are Nathan Staples, an irascible writer who lives among a small colony of peers on remote Foal Island off the coast of Wales (and supports himself by cranking out Gothic “splatter” fiction)—and Mary Lamb, a hopeful young writer who comes to the island as its first scholarship student, remaining there for an entire seven years. What Mary doesn’t know is that she’s the daughter abandoned 15 years earlier, when Nathan left her and her mother Maura—a dereliction that the contrite Nathan now fictionalizes in an autobiographical novel-in-progress (New Found Land). This dual central situation does grow wearisome (although the novel-within-the-novel is quite beautifully written), but Kennedy has the good sense to keep distracting our attention from its redundancy with sharp portrayals of Nathan’s companions (including a hilariously disturbed “performance poet” and a good-natured mutt named Eckless), the most fully realized of whom is his alcoholic editor and drinking buddy, the affably self-destructive Jack Grace. The focus, though, keeps returning to Nathan’s patient stewardship of Mary’s sensibility and career (each year she spends under his tutelage is dedicated to following one of Nathan’s gnomic “rules”—such as “Pay attention to everything,” and “Do it for love”). Brief emphases on Mary’s upbringing (by her gay uncle and his love, in a small Welsh village) provide additional variation, but do not make her particularly believable as a budding writer (she’s actually a fairly generic 19-year-old). Oddly, it doesn’t matter: the tangle of secrecy, guilt, and irrational hope that underlies Nathan’s Prospero-like guardianship of the daughter he yearns to acknowledge makes of their intricate double story a moving illustration of “the impossibility of creation without love.”
Not Kennedy’s shapeliest or subtlest book, but probably her best yet.