In the recent podcast on the work of Irvine Welsh, Alan Bissett and I discussed the merits of the short story with reference to The Acid House, and I claimed that it sparked a revival of the short story in Scotland. As soon as I thought about it clearly I realised that actually the form had been alive and well for years before that from the pens of Muriel Spark, William McIlvanney, James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, Agnes Owens, A.L. Kennedy and others, although I’ll stand by the claim that The Acid House had the highest profile, and probably the highest sales, off the back of Trainspotting.
The point was that it is often an under appreciated form, and when done well it offers as much or more than the longer form of fiction. One of the masters of the short story is Jackie Kay, and her recent collection Reality, Reality is a fine addition to her canon. Known best as a poet, her fiction is perhaps overlooked and that’s a shame as she brings to it the same insight and grace that runs through all her work.
Above all else, this is an incredibly ‘sensual’ book. The stories always vibrant and passionate. There is music in ‘The First Lady of Song’ which is a tour through history, food as ‘Hadassah’ prepares her chicken thighs with coleslaw. The colour red is just one recurring motif, and Kay uses her poetic language to paint the most evocative pictures with words. In ‘Mind Away’ Mary types a letter for her ageing mother on an old Olivetti typewriter with an ‘h’ missing and it is in such small and intimate detail that the success of these stories lie. Kay makes you care.
But this is not a look through rose coloured spectacles. There is love and life, but inevitably that means that there is also death and loss, and Kay doesn’t shy away from examining the whole. In ‘The White Cot’ Dionne and Sam go on holiday to try and save their relationship, but they are doomed as soon as they are given a room with an accusing cot in the corner. ‘Mini Me’ sees Pat constantly returning to Day 1 of her diet, a losing battle that becomes an all too believable groundhog day and which looks at the desire to conform to popular body images and the conflicting myths, methods and micro science that can lead to dangerous obsession. In ‘These are not my Clothes’ and ‘Grace and Rose’ attitudes to and from old age are looked at with an empathetic eye.
Reality, Reality is a book that reflects upon all the ages of woman. Every story is about clearly defined individuals whose lives tell us something about our own. Kay manages to look back and forward with an honesty that deals with happy memories but also regret; with moments of contentment punctured by very real fear and anxiety about the present and the future. This is a book about growing up and growing old and is a reminder of just how life affirming that journey can be.