Monday, November 1, 2010

Review: So I am Glad, by A.L. Kennedy

In many ways, I feel like I still haven’t recovered from the last A.L. Kennedy novel I read. When I finished her book Paradise two and half years ago, I felt like I had stumbled upon a writer whose approach to narrative and linguistic style left me both drained and exhilarated by their brilliance. For months afterward, I recommended that novel to every person I possibly could; I even brought it along when I was invited to speak to creative writing classes to read out excerpts as examples of what I thought really good writing was. And now, coming to So I am Glad – which was published nearly a full decade before Paradise, when Ms. Kennedy was just 30 years old – I have had my beliefs in this novelist and her singular power confirmed all over again.

So I am Glad is a bizarre tale of love, violence and one’s inability to fit into a time and place. The protagonist is Jennifer, a young woman living in Scotland in 1993. She shares a house with a group of friends and works as a voice-over performer at a local radio station. She also has a taste for S&M (her “dangerous enthusiasms”, she calls it), a proclivity she probably developed as a result of her parents forcing her to watch them have sex when she was a young girl. Her story takes a turn for the surreal when a man appears seemingly out of nowhere to occupy one of the vacant rooms in the house. He claims to be the 17th-century French writer and soldier Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac. As Jennifer attempts to unravel his identity and how he came to appear so suddenly in her life, she finds herself falling in love with him and questioning the paths that have led her to the situations she now finds herself in.

What makes Kennedy’s writing so astounding – both in general and in this novel specifically – is her preternatural ability to map the inner workings and profound turmoil of a troubled mind. To describe a thoroughly dysfunctional person attempting to negotiate the contemporary world is her single greatest strength as a writer. This isn’t chintzy Woody Allen schtick set on endless replay; it is honest and bold and thoroughly original. In So I am Glad, we gain the full spectrum of Jennifer’s various anguishes: everything from her tempestuous relationship with her coworker and ex-boyfriend Steve to the mysterious back pain that plagues her throughout the novel is laid out bare and raw for us. She finds a kindred spirit in Savinien because, like her, he is displaced in his current time and place – in his case, quite literally so. Their shared torment lends both a tender and terrifying quality to their relationship.

Much like Paradise, So I am Glad is not for softies or the faint of heart. There are scenes here of excruciating violence, including an S&M episode with Steve that gets way, way out of hand. But Kennedy tempers the more hostile aspects of this book with some amazing aphoristic writing and wonderful observations about the human condition. As usual, only by creating the most neurotic character possible is she able to reveal some truly profound things about the world.

Having read So I am Glad, I’m not the least bit surprised that Kennedy has cemented her place as Scotland’s leading literary writer. And it won’t surprising when I find myself reading her again, and again, and again.

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