Day

By A. L. KENNEDY

Were A. L. Kennedy an American writer rather than a Scottish one, she might very well be one of our literary celebrities. Prodigiously talented, she receives glowing U.K. reviews and has twice been picked as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists. Kennedy is also remarkably prolific. At 42, she has 11 books under her belt, including 6 novels, 3 story collections, an analysis of the film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and a study of bullfighting. For output, she may someday rival Joyce Carol Oates; for obsessive attention to craft, she has no peer.

Kennedy’s novels and stories are bleak but seductive things; few writers have mapped the terrain of interpersonal isolation as well as she has, and perhaps no one has done it with comparable agility and wit. In Day, Kennedy’s latest novel, she ponders the vacuum that World War II has left in the life of Alfred Day, a 25-year-old former RAF sergeant adrift in peacetime, and delivers a moving if sometimes claustrophobic account of one man’s haunted solitude.

The book opens in 1949, after Alfie — “biddable and sensible and ordinary, nothing more” — has left his job in a London bookshop to come to Germany as an extra in a movie about prisoners of war. He’d been a real Kriegie (from Kriegsgefangener, German for war prisoner) after ditching his doomed plane and parachuting into enemy territory, and so, amid the pretend POW camp’s fake huts and phony Nazis, he feels a jittery, unsettling sense of homecoming. It’s not the privations of camp that Alfie has missed, though, but the war itself, which gave the callow Staffordshire youth his first experience of camaraderie, a belated sense of his own agency, and, perhaps most important, his one and only taste of love.

Having volunteered to be a tail gunner in a Lancaster bomber (“the one they’re most likely to kill”), Alfie had found himself among a tight-knit crew of seven, from the aristocratic beanpole Pluckrose to the bilious, dirty fellow they called the Bastard. Although familiar war-fiction tropes fall into formation behind Alfie — the gallows humor, the pre-combat rituals, the occasions for fierce loyalty and courage under attack — Kennedy’s handling of them is anything but commonplace. She adroitly evokes the crew’s banter, and her descriptions of their missions offer some of the book’s most poetic moments. As Alfie’s bomber nears its base after a night sortie, the narration slips from no-nonsense declaration into dreamy lyricism: “And you’re up in the dawn, in the start of it, the great bright roll of tomorrow peeling wide. Should make you feel naked, but it cheers you — the day reaching out to find you, call you. You’ve been slow: headwind shoving at you, but you’re almost there. It will still be dim when you’re landing, everything layers of blue.”

Despite the backdrop of war both real and simulated, Day is, at its heart, a kind of love story, and as such has kinship with other of Kennedy’s admirable novels. In these black romances, a character’s soul-deep loneliness is mitigated, to varying degrees of success, by the presence of an equally companionless other. So I Am Glad, for example, is a romance between an emotionally stunted radio announcer and a man who might be the reincarnation of Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac. Original Bliss traces the complicated courtship between an abused housewife and a pop-psychology guru with a pathological masturbatory habit. And the masterful Paradise follows the addled love affair between two alcoholics, with a distillery’s worth of Scotch thrown in to properly triangulate the desire.

But in Alfie’s love story, unlike the others, the end has already been written. As he wanders around the fake POW camp, pretending to be a captive, he ponders his losses: first his flight crew, all of whom perished on one of their last bombing runs, and then Joyce, the pretty Londoner with whom he fell in love one night in a blackout shelter and who ended their affair before the return of her husband, a lieutenant stationed in Singapore. It’s the loss of Joyce that plagues Alfie the most, so it’s odd that she never becomes a full-fledged character. “There’s this shine about her, as if she’s a magazine picture, or something religious,” Alfie thinks upon meeting her, and as their relationship progresses, he continues to see her through such a haze of desire that she seems like little more than a beautiful blur in a golden mist. Alfie’s beloved mother, too, is only lightly drawn, a benevolent figure perpetually cowed by her brutal but equally sketchy fishmonger husband. One could take issue with such shorthand characterizations, but then again, the story isn’t really about these people; it’s about what Alfie needs from them and can’t get — just as the book isn’t really about war but about war’s effect on one ordinary man. (Though Kennedy has written scathing indictments of the war in Iraq, she offers no judgments about the war in her novel.)

Kennedy makes Alfie a sympathetic hero through his obvious wounds, his halting bravery, and his frank yearning — not to mention a free use of second-person narration that puts readers definitively inside his lonely head. In less skilled hands, such a trick might grate, but here it seems a natural outgrowth of her character’s conflicted consciousness, his simultaneous drive toward recollection and denial. The third-person “he” becomes a “you” in crucial moments, just as in times of stress Alfie’s Black Country accent rises up to clip words to their barest syllables (“you didn’t,” for example, becomes “yo day” — just like his name).

Despite its stylized construction, its shifts between a matter-of-fact present and a sometimes stream-of-consciousness past, this is one of Kennedy’s most accessible books, in part because Alfie’s struggles are rendered with such clarity and tenderness. It’s true that bad news outweighs the good in Day, but to take a page from Joyce Carol Oates, to complain that there is too much brutality in Kennedy’s fiction is like saying that “there’s too much reality in life.”