Sunday, December 06, 2020

the last book I read

Looking For The Possible Dance by A.L. Kennedy.

We're in Scotland. I know, I know, far from ideal, but that's where Margaret was born and raised and lives, so that's where we are. Raised mainly by her father after her mother flew the coop early doors - her father told her for a long time that her mother had died, but eventually admits this isn't true.

Margaret is of a generally bright and helpful disposition and works in some sort of community centre as a general helper - manning the tills in the café, helping with bookings and event organising in the community hall - despite the centre's manager, Mr. Lawrence, being a bit of a rum cove who might possibly hate Margaret, or might possibly want to sleep with her, or possibly both at the same time.

Margaret has a boyfriend, Colin, whom she met at university in England and had a thing with; there was then a gap and they then hooked up again later when they were both living back in Scotland. It's hard to be any more definite than that because one of the things that the book does is jump back and forth in time between (and even within) chapters without much identifying context as to when each section takes place. So you have to work it out for yourself as you go along. What certainly can be said is that the following events happen in some order and are described in the book: Colin and Margaret hook up again and have a relationship punctuated by at least a couple of further on/off moments. Margaret's father dies. Colin, while hanging about in the centre where Margaret works waiting for her to finish, has an altercation with a shifty bloke trying to interest some of the centre's patrons in some sort of dodgy loan scheme and sends him packing. Margaret gets involved with preparations for a ceilidh in the hall, despite Mr. Lawrence's misgivings (basically that it all sounds a bit rowdy and that dangerous levels of Fun may be involved).

What we can be reasonably certain of is that the last few events described happen in the following sequence: the ceilidh happens, and is generally a roaring success, except for the unfortunate appearance of Mrs. Lawrence, who turns, up, gets roaringly pissed, has to be rescued from the toilets by Margaret, is bundled into a car and taken home by Mr. Lawrence and then rather unfortunately chokes on her own vomit and dies during the night. Mr. Lawrence decides that this is all Margaret's fault and fires her from the centre on some made-up charges. Margaret, being currently in an "off" period in her relationship with Colin, arranges to head down to London and stay with a friend for a while. Meanwhile, Colin, just wandering down the street minding his own business, is bundled into a cab and spirited away by some shady gangster types who turn out to be associated with the loan shark that Colin ejected from the centre. They and their soft-spoken boss. Mr. Webster, warn Colin off from further meddling in their business affairs by beating him up a bit and then nailing his hands and feet to the wooden floor of an abandoned building. 

Some indeterminate amount of time later, after being reunited with Colin and helping him convalesce (since there is a whole host of things he won't be able to do for a while, like walk or wipe his own arse), Margaret follows through with her plan to go to London. Colin gives her an ultimatum: stay away forever or come back and be with him forever. What will she do? Place bets now!

This is the second AL Kennedy book on this list, and the first thing I'd say about it is that I thought it was a lot better than the other one, So I Am Glad, which I read back in 2009. That one was an incongruous mix of gritty realism and some odd supernatural elements, this one sticks mainly to the gritty realism, and all the better for it. Looking For The Possible Dance was actually Kennedy's first novel, published in 1993 (So I Am Glad was her second). There are some nice gently comic moments, mainly involving the motley crew of performers Margaret has to organise for the ceilidh, and Margaret and Colin are nice, earnest people, perhaps both without that protective shell of cynicism which enables other people to contrive to be looking the other way when bad things happen so they can plausibly avoid getting involved. The moments when the serious shit goes down at the end (Mrs Lawrence's demise after the ceilidh and Colin's naily ordeal) are a jarring contrast to all that, no doubt intentionally. What was also jarring to me was how similar Colin's ordeal was - incurring the wrath of some local Mr Big and getting nabbed by his heavies, taken to a discreet location and brutalised - to that undergone by Ken Nott near the end of Iain Banks' Dead Air, a book I read over seven years ago but, coincidentally, made reference to, and to that passage in particular, only a couple of weeks ago. No suggestion here that Colin is actually dead afterwards, though.

Anyway, I enjoyed this without being, to recycle a phrase from the So I Am Glad review, blown away by it. Nonetheless it won some awards when it first came out, most notably the Somerset Maugham Award in 1994. Previous books on this list to have won the same award include Metroland, A Good Man In Africa and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

I note that Kennedy's novella Original Bliss was made into a German-language film (under the title Gleißendes Glück) in 2016. The only thing I have to say about it is that unless its plot diverges quite sharply from that of the novella, which is a bracing but firmly unerotic tale of sexual perversity, the Plot Keywords section on that IMDb page may well lead to disappointment.

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