This review of Leigh Kennedy’s collection, Wind Angels, first appeared in Foundation 114, Spring 2012/13.
In her titles, Leigh Kennedy often seems to draw attention to faces. Her first collection, called, appropriately, Faces (1986), included her award-winning story ‘Her Furry Face’; her very welcome new collection includes a story called ‘Helen, Whose Face Launched Twenty-Eight Conestoga Hovercraft’. Yet the stories themselves seem little concerned with faces. There is a sculpture of Helen’s face made by the latter story’s narrator, but far more important, in terms of plot, character and relationships, is her prosthetic arm. During the horrifying moments that launch what is perhaps the best story in this collection, ‘Vida’, the eponymous character sees only the back of her stepfather’s trousers, his hands hanging down. In the title story, ‘Wind Angels’, what first attracts Colina to Ewart is the distant sight of him turning cartwheels in a field, and later when she mends his trousers she finds pubic hair caught in the zip.
These are, in other words, stories that are far more about bodies – earthy, sensual, brutal, physical – than they are about faces – psychological, ethereal, romantic – but that contrast between where we are directed to look and what we find there is what makes these stories, at their best, so good. Even when she writes about fairies or cherubs, for instance in ‘The Ineffable’ which tells the story of a sort of guardian angel escorting souls between this world and the next, the emphasis is on physicality. She starts the story with a brief but vivid account of the removal of an ovarian tumor, and the story keeps coming back to hospitals and poor townships and other settings where the bodily, the fleshiness of daily existence, are to the fore. The tension between this concentration on the flesh and the romantic, airy nature of the angelic narrator doesn’t always work, but it does seem symbolic of Kennedy’s work. In what is, I think, the weakest story in the collection, ‘The Bicycle Way’, about a woman who looks younger than her years who rides a remote bicycle route as a trap for paedophiles, and who finds herself being escorted by someone she at first takes to be a predator, there is the repeated emphasis on the sweat, the physical effort of the ride. What the story lacks, I suspect, is that angelic, romantic flight that we find elsewhere, it is too earthbound.
Generally the stories need that hint of flight. In ‘Bats’ a woman finds her home invaded by several different species of bat. At first, she considers them a pest, a nuisance, but slowly she comes to accept them, even to like them. Though they are clearly not angelic visitants (there is much talk of the mess they make), still they represent a sense of flight even if her own existence is resolutely earthbound (she lives alone, as the story opens she is planning to have Christmas dinner with a curmudgeonly neighbour). When a stranger intrudes to eradicate the bats, it is also a destruction of her own hopes, her sense that there is still a possibility of flight.
Time and again in these stories we are presented with a life that is limited, where there are boundaries around aspiration, where avenues have been cut off. And yet some intrusion, often though not always fantastical, suggests there is something beyond the earthy. The physical is always more clearly presented than the fantastic, Kennedy is at her best describing the mundane reality of her characters, but the suggestion of something more, though it may be only vaguely sensed, is what gives the stories their energy.
‘Wind Angels’, for example, closes around the heroine, Colina, in several different ways. She is living in a post climate change future where sea levels have risen, most of the town is now under water and people are living in a smaller and smaller area, sharing homes, seeing their world physically limited. What’s more, the man she loved has died, and because she was his mistress not his wife she has nothing to remember him by. And now, as the world contracts, she is coming under pressure to give up her own home for others made homeless by the latest landslip. Kennedy paints this drab reality with an eye for the vivid detail, the worn and faded colours of everyday existence when everything is reused and recycled, and when all that has been lost in the past is bigger and brighter than anything that may be anticipated for the future. Yet against the drabness of Colina’s ever more restricted existence is set the flight of Ewart. When we see him, alone in a field, turning cartwheels, his bodily physicality is expressive of joy; he is practical, holding the community together with his energy and retaining a necessary optimism for the future. Colina resists him because she has taught herself to accept and even welcome the narrowing of her world; but it is the very physicality of Ewart, the pubic hairs caught in the pair of trousers she is mending, that eventually wins her over. In this dual nature, both earthbound and taking flight, Ewart is perhaps the most representative figure in all of these stories.
We find similar tension between the earthy and the romantic, for instance, in ‘Vulture Trucks’, in which we follow the budding romance between two tow-truck owners in a small American town who make their living attending to car crashes. Eventually, we learn that both are able to foresee when a crash is about to occur, so the sense of flight that raises them above the mundanity of their existence is also something that brings them back to the reality of dead and injured bodies and mangled vehicles. It is a beautifully judged story that deftly balances between the ugliness of bodily reality and the romantic flights of love and precognition. There is something similar in ‘Tropism’, in which a dead man is restored to some form of life, his rotting corpse sitting in the family kitchen with wife and child. But as the corpse’s body decays and his experience of time seems to slow, so he becomes more and more detached from his family. So the romantic notion of a man restored both to life and to the family that love him is subverted by the bodily details of decay and smell and detachment.
However, the story that is the best in the collection for me is one that doesn’t just explore the tension between the earthy and the romantic, but actually uses this tension as its guiding metaphor. This is ‘Vida’, which tells the story of a girl traumatised by the murder of her mother by her stepfather. She finds herself taken into a strange household with other children who seem to have been damaged in some way. Gradually we learn that she is in some sort of psychological therapy, but her real cure will come only when she is able to leave this ideal and romantic home for the reality that awaits her. This is a beautifully constructed and very moving story, though as so often in Kennedy’s work the movement is towards the real rather than the ideal.
Leigh Kennedy made an immediate impact with her short stories, many of which were collected in her first book, Faces. This was quickly followed by two excellent novels, The Journal of Nicholas the American (1986) and Saint Hiroshima (1987), and then … nothing. Over the last few years her short stories have begun to appear again, though even so the earliest of the stories gathered here dates from 1981. Even so, there are 16 stories in this collection, including her collaboration with Howard Waldrop, ‘One Horse Town’, of which 9 date from this century (three are original to this collection). It can only be hoped that this is the harbinger of more stories and novels from an author who has been too quiet for too long.