We Are Attempting to Survive Our Time

A L Kennedy

Jonathan Cape, £16.99

Review by Rosemary Goring

The timing of this collection could not have been much worse for the author, but its title and tone fit our current situation like a bespoke suit.

While A L Kennedy did not foresee the pandemic, in these 13 sombre stories she addresses a world out of kilter, where political and personal choices can have unexpected and sometimes deadly repercussions.

I say sombre, but there are flashes of wit, as is Kennedy’s way. Still best known as a novelist and short story writer, her sidestep into stand-up comedy made sense for one whose dry, side-of-the-mouth humour was black and bleak, and often very funny.

We Are Attempting to Survive Our Time draws occasionally on Kennedy’s performing career, although not always to best advantage. In Waiting in the Jesus Queue, a children’s TV celebrity is self-isolating after making an appalling gaffe. All but one of the stories here is in the first person, and Brent’s monologue has the forced cheeky-chappy air of a man barely keeping his chin above water. “Naturally, I rehearse a lot,” he says. “No one ever gets to be spontaneous without rehearsing.” As he says of his profession, they spend time “perfecting ourselves so that we can at least entertain. Which is not nothing. It isn’t being a doctor, but it leads to a kind of health.”

It could as easily be a writer’s credo, and in this tale of public disaster Kennedy shows the thin ice on which performers of all sorts walk. Elsewhere, however, her concerns are almost a checklist of society’s evils – all except a global health emergency, for which relief many thanks.

The trauma of the second world war is the theme for Am Sontag, about a survivor of the Nazis, and Unanswered, in which a German orphan cannot shake his awareness of the buildings that were bombed in the blitz, whose tremors, and dead occupants, he feels around him decades later.

The welfare system’s heartlessness is captured, not wholly successfully, in The Point for Lost Children, in which a homeless Scottish woman is befriended by a kindly granny: “Only the people who hate you can help and they don’t want to. The good folk think there’ll still be a solution.” In one piece a man plots to remind a thinly disguised prime minister of the bloodshed his actions have caused; in another, a woman takes on a racist at Jersey Zoo.

In places Kennedy’s writing is slack and repetitive, sounding more like the spoken word than the concision and allusiveness necessary for a memorable short story. The sudden reveals in several tales feel overly dramatic and manipulatively tragic, as if everything that matters most must spring from profound sorrow or loss.

The bookends of the collection show Kennedy at her best. The opening story, Panic Attack, is sharply observed with a slow-burn unfurling of backstory. Told by a former soldier waiting to board a train to Edinburgh, he is the only one who goes to the help of a woman in emotional distress. A vicar stands by doing nothing – unless, thinks Ronnie, he is praying, “Which is doing a load of good, as we can see. What state would she be in without his assistance – on bloody fire?” As he tries to assist, Kennedy flips the story open like an oyster shucker, so that it is Ronnie who is laid bare. The result is perfectly judged and moving.

Also heartfelt is the title story. An account of a couple’s blazing row, its maturity and insight are a poignant reminder of how vulnerable individuals are, as is their love. Hence the title, which was taken from the words packed onboard the Voyager spacecraft: “We are attempting to survive our times so we may live into yours”. This was sent into orbit in the 1970s, but remains eerily prophetic today.

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