A.L. KENNEDY reads at the House of Anansi 40th Anniversary party, Saturday (October 20), 8 pm. $15. And Tuesday (October 23), 8 pm. $15. Both events in the Premiere Dance Theatre (235 Queens Quay West). 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNN
The prospect of interviewing Scottish novelist Alison Louise Kennedy borders on the terrifying. She belongs to two classes of artists prone to neurosis and overt mocking of others: prolific novelists and practised stand-up comics.
A novelist for 15 years and a comedian for three, she's been known to review her reviewers on her website. I'm willing to take the chance, however, because about five years ago, when I first read her novel So I Am Glad, I was engrossed by her skilful wit and inventive prose. Her language is unpredictable, and her sentences roll around corners, ending up where you least expect.
Thankfully, as we discuss the pitiful state of literary publishing worldwide, I realize she's nowhere near as frightening as I'd anticipated, and the hives on my arms begin to clear.
Kennedy came up with the idea for her new novel, Day, while reading a magazine article about the making of a war movie where real former prisoners of war returned to act as POWs.
"It was a strange recreation of a time that for many people wasn't at all pleasant," she says on the phone from Calgary, her first stop on a Canadian tour that leads her to the Authors Festival. "I wanted to know why you would go back."
She says she's very much influenced by the fact that Britain is currently at war. Day is a somewhat indirect response to the conflict in Iraq, taking up issues relating to the cruelties of all war. She didn't want to write about the present, though.
"It's easier with a more distant war, because wars take so long to even begin to be done with."
Kennedy has five novels under her belt, two non-fiction titles and several short story collections. She published her first novel at 27, and she's twice been listed on Granta's Best Of Young British Writers. She thinks emerging writers are facing new difficulties.
"My first published work was a book of short stories, and it was unusual to be allowed to start that way. Publishers are cutting back. I know my publisher in the UK has had to make many compromises he would not normally make. If one book is successful, they want three more that are slightly similar."
So I have to ask: how does she really feel about bad reviews? Why the reviewed reviews on her site?
"It's just somebody's opinion," she says. Then, like a comic, she adds, "I always think the good reviews are wrong and the bad reviewers are much brighter people. The ones that are complimentary are that way for strange reasons, like they read it really fast and misunderstood it."
She's not going to post reviews of her Day reviews.
"When I get a recording of one of my readings and a question-and-answer period, I'll put that up," she says. "I'm tired of the media-reporting-on-the-media thing."
DAY, by A.L. Kennedy (House of Anansi), 281 pages, $29.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Day is narrated by Alfred Day, a young gunner in the RAF during the Second World War who fled an abusive father to find a new family in his tight-knit crew of fellow fighters.
In 1949, Alfred takes a part as an extra in a film about a POW camp in order to try make sense of the senseless misery of his own experience as a prisoner of war.
In flashbacks we learn that as a gunner Alfie discovered a purpose, growing into adulthood during a time of tumult, desperation and cruelty. Despite - or perhaps because of - the harsh reality of war, he felt at home in the chaos. He fell in love for the first time in an air-raid shelter with a woman whose mere existence inspired him to stay alive when he parachuted into a POW camp in Germany.
Kennedy's timely and insightful novel is thoroughly engaging, a vivid exploration of the repercussions of war in one man's slow unravelling. Solid.