‘A strong collection filled with memorable characters and voices, skilful use of language and strong emotion’ – Reality, Reality by Jackie Kay
Reality, Reality is the latest story collection from the ever-prolific Jackie Kay, a writer we Manchester types are pleased to claim as one of our own; it’s a playful, thought-provoking, melancholy but hopeful set of tales, and a general pleasure to read. In broad strokes, Kay’s themes are loneliness, love, friendships and relationships, family, identity and fantasy, and, as the title indicates, many of the stories are located in that hazy borderland where reality and unreality clash and blur. The narrators (mostly a first-person gang) are a colloquial, confiding lot, and, as short as most of the tales are, the reader’s quickly drawn into their worlds – worlds that are then pretty hard to forget.
The opening, eponymous story (along with ‘Mini Me’) was one of my favourites. In ‘Reality, Reality’, the narrator, Stef, has taken a week off work, during which she’s determined to win a Masterchef-esque reality show of her own invention. An extended monologue that recounts Stef’s ambitions, triumphs and failures throughout Day One of her Big Week, the story’s almost unbearably sad, but achingly funny at the same time. It reminded me of the determined, mad world of Jenn Ashworth’s heroine, Annie, in A Kind Of Intimacy, but without Annie’s violence. Stef’s is a brand of poignant self-deception that’s edged with enough optimism and hope to keep me rooting for her. It’s an enormously punchy opening to the collection. Later, ‘Mini Me’ charmed/hooked me in a similar way – both stories are steeped in Scottish dialect and colloquialisms (though ‘Reality, Reality’ is set in my ownSouth Manchester neighbourhood) and both feature self-destructive, self-improving narrators with a tenuous grip on their own, well, realities. In ‘Mini Me’, Patricia’s determined to lose weight; her stop-start technique as revealed in her confessional/defiant food journal is hilarious, but it also reveals the destructiveness of her friendships and her relationship. While ‘Reality, Reality’ is sparky and ultimately hopeful, ‘Mini Me’, equally funny, is a more lonely story.
This mix of optimism and pessimism is well distributed throughout the book. ‘The First Lady of Song’, reminiscent of Woolf’s Orlando, is about the redemptive power of love, and ‘Gracie and Rose’, which tells the story of the first gay wedding on Shetland, is even more celebratory, if a little lacking in narrative tension for my liking. It’s also one of the most grounded stories in the book, along with ‘Hadassah’, which is realistic in a far more depressing way – telling the story of an African refugee sold into sexual slavery in Britain. There’s a broad seam of fantastical tales here, from the hallucinatory fairy-tale elements of ‘The Pink House’ (a woman in debt runs away to hide in Elizabeth Gaskell’s house, where, in Beauty and the Beast style, a hidden benefactor has prepared a home for her) to the haunted-house, Turn Of The Screw, creepiness of ‘The White Cot’, and the bizarre fact/fiction seepage of ‘Mind Away’, where an old lady’s apparent dementia leads her into the arms of the young doctor who’s been picking up the words she’s lost. Kay’s exuberant word-play is evident throughout (in the rapid-fire mother-daughter interplay in ‘Mind Away’, for instance), as is her skill with dialogue, which most impressed me in ‘Doorstep’, a Christmas story about a bitter woman rescued from her self-imposed loneliness by a generous friend, that’s not a million miles from It’s A Wonderful Life territory. As well as a set of shared preoccupations (love, reality, self-improvement), a couple of the stories share a more overt link – ‘These Are Not My Clothes’ and ‘Mrs Vadnie Marlene Sevlon’ are based around the same nursing-home setting. The first tells of an elderly resident whose only real lifeline to the outside world is severed when the narrator of the second, Vadnie, is forced out of her job. Vadnie’s own life is coloured by an imaginary husband, whose unexpected death at the end of the book is enough to make you (me) cry. It’s the tenderness of the reality/fantasy mix that makes these stories so memorable: Kay’s a compassionate writer; we’re never mocking her characters, but always rooting for them.
The informal, chatty nature of many of the stories is seductive; the confiding whispers of the various narrators would really, I think, lend themselves to performance. But there’s also a self-conscious literariness at work in the pages; as well as Woolf and James, I found nods to Joyce dotted throughout, particularly in ‘Mind Away’, where language and the act of writing is seen as a powerful creative force, essential to a life well-lived. The images of snowfalls here and in ‘The Winter Visitor’ were also reminiscent of ‘The Dead’.
Any Cop? Yes, without a doubt. It’s a strong collection filled with memorable characters and voices, skilful use of language and strong emotion; it’s not so highbrow as to alienate the casual reader, but it’s very clever all the same. Recommended.
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- June 8, 2012 / 3:45 pm