Reality, Reality By Jackie Kay Picador, £12.99Jackie Kay’s heartbreaking, often funny and minutely observed third collection of short stories is aptly named. Reality, Reality is peopled with women – mostly middle aged, some older – whose day-to-day stories, all told through first-person narrative, are richly complex and belie their woman-in-the-street ordinariness.
The woman in the title story is living her own reality-TV show, taking a week off work to compete in an imaginary round of Masterchef. Between the talk of her investment in a KitchenAid, boasting about her “staycation” and her rant about the single supplement – “Aha! Let the recently bereaved, the dumped, the chucked and the lonely pay more. They’re a waste of space” – a picture emerges of a solitary, weight-obsessed woman who drinks too much (“the whisky diet”), and we’re never quite sure if she is actually cooking the meals as she claims.
Unreliable narrators are common throughout the stories, as are themes of loneliness, isolation and social invisibility, and many of the women have issues with weight and alcohol. If that suggests a grim collection, Reality, Reality is far from it. Kay is too sparky a writer to sink into sentiment and gloom, and there’s a deep seam of humour running through the collection. In the hilarious Mini Me, written as the Scottish main character speaks, a woman is keeping a diary about her attempt to lose weight, to release the “mini me” inside. Yet another “day one” gets off to a bad start when a friend asks her to a Chinese buffet. “I telt her I was trying to watch ma weight (a weird phrase; yer weight is not the telly).”
These Are Not My Clothes is a poignant tale of a woman in an old people’s home, where the elderly are mistreated by the staff with a casual cruelty. She is sinking into dementia but is aware enough to want her own things and not be dressed from a common pool of clothes.
This is not a purpose-written collection; most of the stories were published before, so inevitably some don’t seem quite to belong. The First Lady of Song, about a shape-shifting singer who lives for centuries, spills too far over into magic realism to belong in a collection so rooted in the here and now, and Hadassah, about trafficking and based on a Bible story, takes a significant gear change on behalf of the reader.
By David Hewson
Usually films are made from novels, but in a neat case of literary reverse engineering, the acclaimed crime author David Hewson has taken the hit TV series The Killing and fashioned a novel from it.
Widely acclaimed on broadcast, The Killing, a Danish series, followed the effect the murder of a teenage girl had on her family and on the political party tenuously linked to it. Leading the police investigation was the chunky-jumper-wearing, nicotine-gum-chewing detective Sarah Lund (played by Sofie Gråbøl), one of TV’s greatest female leads.
Hewson is the author of the Italian-based Nic Costa detective books, but here he has had to relinquish the emotional expressiveness and the balmy surrounds for Scandinavian sleet and stolidity. Spending time in Copenhagen (where the TV series is set) and listening carefully to what Søren Sveistrup (the creator of the series) had to say certainly seems to have given him a feel for the unique rhythm of the work.
Hewson has adhered faithfully to the original plot but provided a different type of ending. Whether this was to attract those who already knew whodunnit from the TV series is unclear, but Hewson’s ending is a deft work of imagination.
From the opening lines – “Through the dark wood where the dead trees give no shelter Nanna Birk Larsen runs. Nineteen, breathless, shivering in her skimpy torn slip, bare feet stumbling in the clinging mud” – you get a sense of how Hewson approaches the unenviable task of replacing visuals with words.
The book is an excellent read in which the author manages to dig deeper into the characters without having to rewrite their original television characterisation. For those who haven’t seen the series, this is a very cleverly constructed and beautifully written crime drama; for those who already know the ending, a new twist awaits.
Perhaps the biggest compliment to Hewson’s work is that it is being translated into Danish, a sort of subtitles in reverse.
Faces in the Crowd
By Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney
Granta Books, £12.99
This Mexican-born writer’s first novel grapples with something that permeates so much of the imaginative landscape: the battle between fantasy and reality. This theme is mapped out in a story that binds our narrator, an unhappily married mother of two living in Mexico City, and the Mexican poet Gilberto Owen, to a point where their two worlds crumble into each other like shifting sands.
The idea of shifting sands helps to describe a novel that regards grasping reality to be as elusive as grasping lightning. We never get to know the name of our narrator, who is writing a novel as a way of separating herself from her domestic life. In doing so, she explores her days at a publishing house in New York, providing a vivid collage of faces, lovers, friends, and Owen. In her search for “narrative order”, she achieves a kind of chaos that provides a greater understanding.
Through writing about her past, she resurrects Owen, and, in turn, his voice settles into her prose, as if he had been there all along. The novel turns on opposites, to some extent, as she falls into the narrative so as to feel more whole; Owen, meanwhile, begins to fragment, disappearing from photographs, gradually losing his sight and feeling that he is erasing himself, while being pulled back by the narrator because she needs him to “survive” in order that she can.
Luiselli’s writing is full of verve, yet it has a mournful quality that anchors an otherwise almost supernatural world, where time becomes elastic, symbols become statements and ghosts talk to each other over narratives and decades. The novel trades on both parallel and competing desires – “a horizontal novel, told vertically. A horizontal vertigo” – and Owen sees our narrator in his own story, like a ghost “with sad eyes”, yet they both see each other clearly in the most true and private way, struggling, complex, laid bare.
A sense of mystery pervades the novel, providing a literary and philosophical landscape where everything is possible and nothing is certain. The narrator provides little clues along the way that only serve to increase the mystery of the world she has created, as when she quotes Emily Dickinson: “Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn.”