Day dream of a nightmare

Share this article

'IT'S just a nightmare," Alison Kennedy says across the table as she recounts the sleeplessness, flying phobia and general stress involved in her being at the Costa Awards on Tuesday night. She has to fly back to Boston first thing the next morning to be "the warm-up act" to Roddy Doyle – consequently she's not drinking, and ironically enough, given the sponsors, no one seems able to get her a cup of tea.

"But it won't be if you win," pitches in one journalist. "Yes it will. Just a different nightmare," she retorts.

That wry, sardonic, mischievous world-weariness encapsulates why, a few hours later, it's announced that Kennedy has won the 25,000 overall prize. As the chair of the judges, Joanna Trollope, notes, the win has come relatively late in Kennedy's literary career (Day is her fifth novel and 11th book). And that's a good thing: her distinctive voice isn't likely to be overwhelmed by this new-found fame. Day is traumatic, painful, wounded – all the adjectives amateur psychologists love when discussing Kennedy – but it's also humane, comic and uplifting. It's also unabashedly literary.

Day tells the story of Alfred Day, a rear-gunner who "wanted his war". Afterwards, he returns to the prisoner of war camp where he was incarcerated. It's a typical Kennedy motif: the sufferer returning to the place of their suffering. But that focus doesn't preclude the banter, the camaraderie and the hi-jinks. If anything, the comedy intensifies the horror.

Kennedy cuts a slight figure, and seems resigned to being uncomfortable in Park Lane's Intercontinental Hotel. Her wit is pretty dead-pan ("Is this faux-Seventies or has it just not been decorated since the Seventies?" she wonders) and has led some critics to take seriously comments about her personal life which are deeply ironic. Worse, it has led others to make glib connections between the characters in her book and her own personality.

Day seems like a challenge to them: a 42-year-old Scottish woman, whose pronouncements on Iraq and Afghanistan show a clear loathing of war, writing as a youthful Staffordshire man who sees the war as a personal and national liberation. The ventriloquism is pitch-perfect, and the capacity to empathise with a character radically different from herself is indicative of her talent. (Despite this, the former Booker judge John Sutherland wrote a bemused blog entitled "Can a woman pilot a war novel?" ruefully concluding that AL Kennedy can, and that it makes "my whatdoyoucallthems shrivel a bit".)

Born in 1965 in Dundee, Kennedy studied at Warwick University before heading to Glasgow. Her debut collection of short stories, Night Geometry And The Garscadden Trains was published in 1990 by the Edinburgh University imprint, Polygon, and she decided on the anonymous "A L" in case it flopped. Instead, it won the Saltire First Book Award (a triumph echoed last year when Day won the Saltire Book of the Year). The Costa is her first "major" literary award, despite being the only writer to twice appear on the Granta Best of Young British Novelists.

Kennedy was taken up by a London editor, the poet Robin Robertson, and was quickly associated with the new wave of Scottish writing in the 1990s championed by him – including stablemates John Burnside, Janice Galloway, Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner. Her non-fiction book, On Bullfighting, in 1999, openly discussed the depression she suffered, stemming from a debilitating spinal problem and the death of her grandfather. That self-revelation was grist to the mill for those who found her work bleak, depressing and dark. Trollope even confessed that Day probably wasn't a book for anyone suffering from serious depression.

In a surprise move in 2005, she embarked on stand-up comedy. There was certainly a broad strand of mordant humour in her books, and she quickly capitalised on her "glum" reputation. When I saw her show in 2007, she came onstage and declared "I know what you're thinking: lesbian undertaker". Her stand-up received a mixed response, which seemed, in fact, to make her persevere. I also made the mistake of sitting near the front, providing her a sitting target throughout – a situation a great many novelists may wish to have with a critic. Her website, characteristically, lists her reviews grouped into "good, bad and silly" categories, with sarcastic responses.

Despite being immediately recognisable, her style is also somewhat paradoxical. Critics cast around for comparisons: Francine Prose compares her to Dostoyevsky. Trollope mentions Joyce and, oddly, Louis de Bernires. Rather than indulging in Oscar-style litanies of gratitude, Kennedy's acceptance speech wittily and forcefully affirms her belief in public libraries, independent bookshops, reviews and the value of culture. "I don't want to live in a country where we're destroying art," she said. Her move into stand-up comedy seems to have at least one beneficial spin-off.

Before she's swept off for the obligatory interviews (part of the aforementioned "different nightmare") she has time to wonder if this leap in her public profile might mean she's more likely to get the chance to write a Dr Who episode. Joke or not? I'm not sure. Winning the Costa certainly means that Kennedy has moved up a rung in terms of literary celebrity. Her work has always garnered the highest critical acclaim: now it also stands a good chance of a wide readership. For the Costas, giving the prize to Kennedy clearly signals that they want to reward genuine literary merit. And although I can't quite yet imagine Alison sharpening her withering wit against Richard and Judy, at least many more readers will hear her bewilderingly angry, compassionate, ironic and sincere voice.

Back to the top of the page