Faces, Leigh Kennedy

Faces, Leigh Kennedy (1986)
Review by Kev McVeigh

Leigh Kennedy began her career with stories in Analog and Universe, but you might not guess that from this collection. Half the ten short stories here are fantastic, but most share a subtlety whereby the genre aspects are not foregrounded.

This more mainstream focus is partly explained by Kennedy assembling Faces initially to submit for a literary prize, and its eventual publication by Jonathan Cape. The title too suggests stories chosen to match a loose theme, as the examples here are more character pieces than straight SF like ‘Helen, Whose Face Launched 24 Conestoga Hovercraft’ which was omitted.

Opening story ‘The Silent Cradle’ sets the tone with spare prose sketching a touching domestic story of a woman finding physical signs of a child she has wished for but can’t exist. Little touches, the smell of milk, gentle wear on a teddy bear, school report cards build the child’s life through to adulthood.

A child is central to ‘River Baby’ and its sequel ‘The Fisherman’. In the former a young mother’s struggles on her own, in the latter the effect on a childless couple echo each other. Where ‘The Silent Cradle’ was poignant in its affection for Florie, this pair, especially ‘The Fisherman’ are clear headed and unromantic. Significantly, for me, in both cases the essential tragedy is not the event narrated in the story but events from many years earlier and revealed by the story.

The past’s emotional power over the present is central to ‘Tuning’ a self-contained excerpt from Kennedy’s second novel Saint Hiroshima, and one of my personal favourites, ‘Max Haunting.’ Within the context of the novel ‘Tuning’ is a powerful redemptive moment, but here that impact is muted. The comic asides lift the reflective melancholy, but in isolation its a weaker story here.

The eponymous Max was a figure in the hippie community a decade ago, now he visits old friends and reminisces. At her best, one thing Leigh Kennedy does as well as anyone is to tell a story in the spaces, in the things she leaves out. The format of both her novels makes this more explicit, but the story of Max ex-lover Jenna is developed here by her absence first. In an interview in 1988 Leigh named Anne Tyler and Eudora Welty amongst her favourite authors, and that light touch hinting at a darker secret is evident here.

Then we come to the Science Fiction, post-apocalypse cannibalism in ‘Belling Martha’, a mysterious speaking in tongues in ‘Greek.’ Both are denser stories than most of this collection, and less obviously a fit. ‘Belling Martha’ again leaves out much background, and Martha’s history is largely told in people’s wary, prejudiced response to her. ‘Greek’ is the weakest story here in its writing, being overly, clumsily, hesitant, and yet its conclusion, that there is old magic within us despite our efforts to ‘sweep out the enchantment and curiosity’ is worth telling.

‘Petit Mal’ is the shortest story here, the first person narrative of a young woman who starts having seizures. For her time progresses in abrupt stop-motion, and again this allows Kennedy to reveal her story in tragic fragments. Initially the narrator seems oddly detached, without the panic and fear you might expect as her life stutters and jolts, but at the end, as her distance from events is revealed, it all works horribly, poignantly well.

Finally, Leigh Kennedy’s best known story. ‘Her Furry Face’ is a deceptive story of an Orangutan, Annie, who not only learns to communicate by signing but by reading and writing and of Douglas who works with her. Told from Douglas’ point of view, the relationship is close, and becomes too close, with disastrous consequences. Balanced against it are the other relationships on show, Annie with fellow ape Vernon, mating in the first line; and Douglas with his wife Therese, who works with deaf children and resents Annie. ‘Her Furry Face’ makes disturbing reading, the central event is shocking, but it is the development of Annie as a character that makes it work on a deeper level.

Throughout Faces, in most, if not all the major stories, men are careless or unobserving of women’s feelings. After an argument: “Douglas knew it was true, but why Therese was so bitter about it, he didn’t understand.” The Fisherman expects comfort as he faces emotions his wife faced and dealt with years before. Max is frustrated that the women he once knew are no longer the same women. Florie, Hannah, Velma all accept magic, the various men all insist on the mundane explanations, self justifications.

Faces is long out of print, but worth seeking out as a collection that delicately balances the magical and the quotidian on one hand, whilst calmly exposing the dark impulses tearing at that balance. Mixing SF and non-SF, Leigh Kennedy tells charmingly disturbing stories in the spaces between lives and genres.

A new Leigh Kennedy collection, I think entitled Wind Angels, is due from PS Publishing later this year.

This review originally appeared on Performative Utterance.

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