They’re all doomed

Lana Asfour finds that Jackie Kay’s heroines are, to say the least, unlucky in love in her latest collection of short stories, Wish I Was Here

Jackie Kay’s latest collection of short stories immerses us in a gloomy world in which couples rarely love each other in equal measure. Most frequently, we hear the lonely voices of female narrators who lose the women they love. Their stories are ordinary, but recounted with compassion and sometimes wit, while the apparent naivety of the prose subtly and unexpectedly draws us in.

The collection begins confidently with the keenly observed ‘You Go When You Can No Longer Stay’, which finds Martin Amis as a surprising masculine presence in the breakdown of a relationship between two women.

Not all the stories focus on lesbian relationships. One grim scenario sees Malcolm, devastated by divorce, preoccupied with finding a way to make suicide look like an accident. His rational contemplation of all the possibilities leads to unanticipated hope. ‘The Mirrored Twins’, the final story, contains a rare instance of equal, perhaps perfect, love between two gay men that is overshadowed by disaster. Towards the middle of the collection, Kay experiments with different genres, to uneven effect. ‘My Daughter the Fox’ may be read as a fable about motherly love, especially for an abnormal child, but the fantasy seems out of place and the story is not enlightening.

‘Sonata’, by contrast, is in the confessional mode. A beauty from Zagreb relates her tale of doomed love to a fellow traveller on a night train in Russia. This form and the continental context invite comparison with Stefan Zweig’s intriguing fable, Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Woman, in which the protagonist is drawn to a handsome young gambler, a diabolical figure. Kay’s Zagreb beauty portrays a past relationship that inspired her own obsessive behaviour, but there is equal focus on the female listener, who falls in love with the nameless woman and addresses her own overarching, and increasingly tormented, narrative to her. Despite this clever mirroring of the narrative, the story’s melodrama and setting seem out of place in this collection.

Kay’s best stories make incisive observations about relationships, frequently through the sufferings of the protagonist or unreliable narrator, as in the darkly witty title story. The lovelorn voices, while flickering with moments of insight, can become monotonous and the careful simplicity of the language banal.

Read in The Observer here