Inspired by Jimmy Ruffin’s song “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?”, AL Kennedy’s fifth collection of short stories is written in the distinctive literary style that has won her awards and widespread acclaim.
The 12 stories explore the question from a number of angles.
Kennedy writes compellingly about pain, loneliness, fear and hurt, often in the first person. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this would make the book a tough read but that is far from the case.
Stories about domestic abuse, financial ruin and lost love are written with great compassion and understanding of her characters.
The way she shapes them reminds me of a Greek myth in which Prometheus created the first humans from clay, breathed life into them and then cared for the poor shivering creatures.
“My writing is often described as dark but it can be difficult to bring humour into stories about people who are broken and in despair,” Kennedy told Socialist Worker. “Life is not all glitz and glamour. It is not Hollywood.
“What Becomes continues the themes of my previous work, talking about real people in real situations with all the pressures and all the damage that life brings.”
Edinburgh greengrocer Peter is one of her broken creatures.
He eschews the fruit and vegetables he sells to subsist on powdered nutritional drinks, his favourite flavour being “nothing”.
Peter hates his customers but somehow finds hope and love with a young woman who visits his shop, and woos her with gifts of apples.
But as things go wrong he retreats into himself once more.
Then a “social worker type” comes into his shop to ask him to display a leaflet for an event. She explains, “It works on the principle that all life is connected and this energy it goes between us, there’s a flow.”
The greengrocer is unconvinced. “We’re not all connected,” he replies. “We are bags of skin. We are all separate bags of skin. We are all separate bags of thinking skin.”
Kennedy says that this book is different from her previous collections.
“I wrote those books of short stories between novels,” she says.
“This one came after two novels during which time I had stored up a lot of ideas. When I came to write this book I knew who the people were, and what they had experienced.
“There was plenty of time to develop the characters and their stories. The stories fit together and are more coherent in time.”
Many of the individuals in these stories are isolated and cannot connect with others, but Kennedy’s brilliant spirited use of language, together with her humour and lack of sentimentality, make for engaging and thought-provoking reading.
Politics is always present in Kennedy’s work, but no one could accuse her of ramming her views down our throats.
“Stories have to last a long time, so you can’t be too topical,” she says.
“You have to approach political comment obliquely. You can write about war, for example, but you don’t want to be too specific.
“Unfortunately, there always seems to be a war somewhere to which the same general comments would apply.”
What Becomes by AL Kennedy is published by Jonathan Cape, £16.99. To order your copy phone Bookmarks bookshop 020 7637 1848 or go to » www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk