BPS Bookclub, Feb 2023 : The End of the World is a Cul De Sac, Louise Kennedy
Well, if you’re going to dip into a short story – and a full 60% of attendees “rarely or never” read short stories – then these are, at least, a masterclass in the genre. Situation, content and characters were all open to vigorous debate, but everyone had to agree that Ms Kennedy can surely write a good short story.
Scores reflected this – a whopping 65% of us rated it 4.5 or 5 ( out of 5). What brought those down to a moderate score was undoubtedly the ‘misery-lit’ nature of the book, and 22% of readers had absolutely no patience with it at all and gave it a score of 2 or less.
These stories are dark, dealing with extraordinarily difficult circumstances in ordinary lives. It’s hard to read several of them back to back without feeling a bit overwhelmed.
It’s recognisably Irish - some exposing the flaws of contemporary Ireland, and others more reminiscent of days gone by. And for some of us, this all felt a bit patronising – ‘been there read that’ already, between the feckless husbands and the put upon partners. Many of us just hope that we live in a happier and better world than is portrayed in Louise Kennedy’s world.
As the front cover blurb tells us, the writer’s “unforgiving gaze” falls equally on men and women. She doesn’t have a particularly feminist outlook, and is quoted as noting that “women screw up as often as men and I didn’t want to have this army of female victims “.
Part of the engagement with a ‘mini story’ is not actually getting all the answers. As a reader you therefore work harder, imagining the backstory and the possible outcomes. It was interesting to observe discussion on various characters, where one reader saw bleakness and victimhood, but the next reader identified hope and self determination instead. We were given a great quote – unfortunately I can’t find the author (Poe? Woolf?) so if anyone knows please tell me! - “ Short stories dilate the mind with implication” – and I think we all enjoyed the debate as a result.
All agreed that Kennedy has an amazing command of the language, not least in her culinary and botanical knowledge, but with a nod to Irish myth and history. These details make for a rich reading experience, and together with Kennedy’s astute memories of recent history, she creates a very evocative description. Her characters are often lonely, and not described with any great warmth or empathy. Having said that, the tiniest detail in the language adds a nuance and an understanding that perhaps supersedes any required lengthy character description.
The collection of stories was consistently high in quality, with no fewer than ten different stories coming up as someone’s favourite. If we had to pick a couple then Garland Sunday and What the Birds Heard rated particularly highly. For those of you who haven’t yet read her full length novel Trespasses ( out in paperback at the end of March) it’s worth saying that it is a gentler and warmer experience than her short stories!