Of Scottish author Jackie Kay’s work, I have to date read two poetry collections, Bantam and The Adoption Papers. I liked the core ideas of both collections, but was ultimately disappointed by them. For me, neither quite came together as well as I was expecting. I was still keen, however, to pick up some of her fiction whilst still living in Scotland, and decided to get myself a copy of Reality, Reality from Fopp. This, her third collection of short stories, was first published in 2012.
All of the stories within Reality, Reality focus upon women, and also on variations of loss. It is, says its blurb, a collection ‘full of compassion, generosity, sorrow and joy’, and brings together fifteen ‘unforgettable stories [which] explore the power of the imagination to make things real…’. The Observer comments that ‘Existential questions of contemporary life are at the heart of this hilarious, heartbreaking collection that skilfully slots large ideas into small squares’, and The Times calls it ‘spiky’ and ‘off-the-wall’.
Somewhat unusual occurrences happen in some, but not all, of these stories. In the title tale, the protagonist, Stef, imagines that she has been picked for the semi-finals of a cookery programme, and attempts to cook culinary delights within set time limits, critiquing herself harshly as she does so. ‘These are not my clothes’ is narrated by a woman living with memory loss, shut within a facility where those around her have faces ‘like the empty bowls, lined and ridged with the remains of things.’ ‘The First Lady of Song’ is told from the perspective of a 300-year-old woman, who has been reincarnated as many different famous female singers throughout history. As even this short list demonstrates, Reality, Reality comprises some tales which are realist, and others which have a touch of magical realism to them.
Some of the tales here are sad; others are hopeful and joyous. ‘Grace and Rose’, for example, is a brief story told from the perspective of two women, who have been a couple for twenty years, and are finally being allowed to marry in Scotland. There are some very thoughtful, considered moments in several of the stories. When the narrator of ‘The First Lady of Song’ recounts all of her children who have passed away from various diseases over time – ‘typhus, whooping cough, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, cholera, small pox, influenza’ – for instance, she goes on to reflect and lament about the fact that she is still living: ‘It was never for me, death, never going to be handed to me on a lovely silver platter, not the gurgle or the snap or the thud or the whack or the slide of it, death. No. I was consigned to listening to the peal of church bells barely change over the stretch of years.’ This was a clever and quite original story. Sadly, some of the others collected here were less engaging, due to the similar narrative voices which were used, or to Kay’s use of overexaggerated dialects.
Some of these stories I connected with, and others I did not. Whilst I liked the real variation in plot which Kay gives, I did find the less memorable, realist stories to be quite similar on the whole. Kay does give a voice to those in the LGBT community, an element which feels so important in this collection, but I did not feel as though their relationships were often explored enough. I found Kay’s writing a little inconsistent; sometimes, as in ‘These are not my clothes’, it is poignant and beautiful, but at others, it falls a little flat. Regardless, Reality, Reality is an inclusive collection; Kay has considered women from different walks of life, and who are at different stages in their lives. There are a lot of themes which can be identified here, from loneliness and ageing to poverty and human trafficking.
Despite the moments of brilliance in Reality, Reality, and a couple of very realistic character creations, I did find the collection a little brief, and on the whole underdeveloped. Whilst this is by no means a bad short story collection, I failed to connect to many of the stories, and a lot of them simply did not personally appeal. I do not feel as though many of the tales are going to be at all memorable, and the stories which deal with the everyday just did not stand out for me. I’m not going to rush out to read any more of Kay’s work, as I feel as though I’ve given it a fair go now. Sadly, Reality, Reality was, for me, rather underwhelming.