Sam Phipps

A damned dark dozen

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A. L. Kennedy

Cape, pp. 212, £

Indelible Acts is A. L. Kennedy's first book of fiction since Everything You Need, which was followed by a spell of suicidal desperation. We know all about that from On Bullfighting, her patchily received foray into the world of the matador which was only partly about matadors and partly about herself and her suicidal desperation.

With fiction it's different, of course; you're not supposed to confuse author and content or to assume any link. Still, whatever the state of Kennedy's mind and emotions now, the predominant quality of these 12 stories - the common denominator - is, sad to say, gloom. And not always an interesting gloom at that. The Kennedy gloom tends to have a deep-seated, almost predetermined feel that makes it very hard to shift, let alone see through. It infects all her characters almost all of the time and comes across not so much as an absorbing trait as a giant attitude problem.

This has two main drawbacks. It makes it hard to care for these people - why should we? - and, perhaps more importantly, it robs them of any possibility of transformation or redemption that could give the stories some texture and depth. It's not grinning angels we're after but just something approaching credible, up-and-down human beings. Or failing that, a genuine sense of tension or pain or absurdity; anything but this terminal ennui.

A loose theme is the impossibility of successful relationships, marital or extramarital. But such an air of resignation pervades these tales that it's a wonder anyone even has the energy to try. The sex, perhaps intentionally, is low on excitement. The dialogue is mostly rather hammy. And though the settings vary from rural and urban Scotland to Rome to Lucerne, the US - or is it Canada? - and beyond, there's little impression of physical place.

The misery, the misery. 'She grimaces back, not entirely unhappily