Connecting with other people is the only thing harder than being alone in this piercing collection from gifted Scottish novelist Kennedy (Day, 2007, etc.).
The complex, often agonizing negotiations of marriage are the subject of several fine stories. “What Becomes,” an internal monologue by a man sitting in a movie theater, unreels memories of his bizarre behavior after he cuts himself in the kitchen and his wife’s despairing response; they’ve lost a daughter, we gradually realize, and are painfully estranged in their separate mourning. The infestation in “Wasps” illustrates a traveling businessman’s insouciance in the face of his wife’s sorrow over his infidelities and his sons’ grief over his absences. Male violence roils “Marriage,” a creepy monologue by an abusive husband, and “Saturday Teatime,” narrated by a woman unable to suppress childhood memories of laughing hysterically at an afternoon TV show so that her friend wouldn’t hear the sounds of her father beating her mother. Yet troubled spouses can sustain each other as well, like the couple in “Confectioner’s Gold” dealing with bankruptcy in the aftermath of the economic meltdown. The longing for companionship suffuses many tales, notably the risky but triumphant “Sympathy,” which portrays a one-night stand with graphic sexual frankness that illuminates the protagonists’ loneliness and sadness. The widow of a popular but nasty children’s entertainer finally gets a good man in “Another,” though it’s more than a little weird that he’s a performer hired to replicate her dead husband’s signature character, Uncle Shaun. Happiness is neither easily achieved nor unmixed in Kennedy’s stories, but she’s compassionate toward even her most damaged creations, aware that we find pleasure where we can. The rowdy amputees at a public pool in “As God Made Us” and the oddballs waiting around a stage door for the magician they idolize in “Vanish” find it in camaraderie with fellow misfits: “They’re all going nowhere. Together.”
Sensitively observed, elegantly written snapshots of the human condition, unsparing yet tender.