My social media timelines are full of people posed looking serious with weighty novels, announcing gravely that they’ll be seeing out their coronavirus confinement by reading War and Peace or Infinite Jest or Europe Central. I have to confess that I’m so frazzled that I can hardly read a tweet without interrupting myself to refresh the news feed and so AL Kennedy’s latest collection of wise, funny, human short stories came at just the right time. I dipped in and out of them over the course of a couple of days and emerged feeling better about the world than I had in a while.
Kennedy won the Costa Book of the Year Prize for her novel Day, about a post-traumatic Second World War pilot. It is noticeable that some of the longer pieces return to warfare and anxiety. “Unanswered” is particularly good, featuring a boy who knows if his home is on a former bomb-site. “The homes that you will make will be all tangled up in these rags and embers of previous life. They’ll most often be the kind of wrong place you’ll offer to the poor.” But again there is a cunningly hidden twist – not in the Roald Dahl Tales Of The Unexpected sense, but a shift in perspective that brings to the story an awful clarity.
Two striking, expertly constructed pieces lie at the generous heart of the book: in “Unanswered” a young boy, adopted as war orphan, grows to adulthood before he even partially discovers his origins; in an era where displaced cities and exiled humans morph into one, Kennedy summons up the drab precariousness of immediate postwar London, where the boy wanders among bomb sites, where “there’s still the shiver from thousands of homes that remember blood”.
Memory is baked into the clay of Kennedy’s characters, each of whom is unable to escape the truth of their lives, just like the bomb-damaged buildings in Unanswered, whose narrator, we slowly realise, contains the nightmare of the Holocaust inside his very bones. Seemingly artless yet ruthlessly focused, these really are stories from the brink.