Reality, Reality by Jackie Kay
Often being master of all of your trades can dilute the effect of the whole. Jackie Kay is most widely known for her poetry since her first collection The Adoption Papers in 1991, and recently her memoir Red Dust Road has been correctly praised and has garnered awards. However, I think her fiction is perhaps overlooked by readers and that’s a shame as she brings to it the same insight and grace that runs through all her work. Her latest short story collection Reality, Reality manages to take the everyday and make it shine.
At a time when short fiction once more seems to be receiving the attention that it deserves Kay reminds us that it can be a form with the possibility to teach us something about ourselves in only a few pages. I was concerned as I read the title story, which has Stef fantasising about being on Masterchef, including doing the voices, that these were going to be little more than light-hearted comments on modern life, but the kick is in the final page where you realise that this fantasy is a coping mechanism to avoid facing an unnamed tragedy. As often with Jackie Kay there is a fist in the velvet glove. The word that kept coming to me as I read the book was ‘sensual’. The stories are full of taste, touch, smell, music and colour. They are vibrant and passionate. They make you want to listen to Kay’s ‘The First Lady of Song’ singing Cole Porter while wearing your favourite red jumper (the colour red is just one of the recurring motifs) and eating ‘Hadassah’s’ chicken thighs with coleslaw. In ‘Mind Away’ Mary types a letter for her aging mother on an old Olivetti typewriter with an ‘h’ missing. It made me want to throw my laptop out the window.
Many of these stories are a celebration of friendship and love between women. Just as you don’t see many middle aged women in Hollywood movies, so I rarely read about them in fiction but there are wonderful individuals of all ages living within these pages, and Kay writes with compassion about them all. I must mention ‘The Last of the Smokers’ which is the most evocative link between smoking and love since Edwin Morgan’s poem ‘One Cigarette’. But people who are so receptive to emotions and passions will be hurt as well as lifted and the book doesn’t hide from showing that if life is a bowl of cherries, they are bound to decay. Death, illness, and loss are all dealt with. 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. The pain on the page is palpable.
‘Mini Me’ looks at the desire to conform to popular body images and the conflicting myths, methods and micro science that can lead to dangerous obsession. Pat is stuck in a very realistic groundhog day as her best intentions are thwarted and she is returned to Day 1 in her diet diary time and time again. It is about the misery that can occur from living for others, and the denial of the senses and the self.
Reality, Reality is a book that covers life from the cradle to the grave; all the ages of woman. 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. And isn’t that how we all are? There is both passion and stoicism at the heart of Reality, Reality. Taken as a whole this is a book about growing up and growing old, the attempt to become an adult, and just how abstract and confusing, yet life affirming, that journey can be.
Picador, rrp £12•99, 240pp