In my reading history I'm afraid I have a failed attempt at tackling one of Scottish author, Jessie Kesson's novels. I don't recall now why I set Another Time, Another Place aside (I saw part of the film that was adapted from the book which is what prompted me to pick it up initially), but after reading this week's short story, "Until Such Times" from Infinite Riches, I feel like giving the novel another go. It took me two reads to feel like I had an idea of what was going on in the story, though my first attempt was somewhat disjointed. I think Kesson's prose requires a focused attention and a willingness to give the story time to unfold.
Kesson's protagonist has an interesting voice. For one thing she is a child, and so perhaps this explains the meandering quality to the storytelling. She also tells the story in second person. Is she talking about herself from the vantage point of adulthood looking back? Or does the way she talks about herself not as "I" but as "you" because she feels outside the world she is living in? Considering her situation, I think perhaps the latter is the more likely explanation.
I like how Kesson tells the story, which the reader has to piece together from a child's point of view. She's a child who understands only a little but reveals quite a lot through her observations. Until such times is some as yet unidentified moment when her mother will come for her and they will live their lives together in happier circumstances. She tells herself--
"But you weren't here to stay forever! Your aunt Ailsa had promised you that. You was only here to stay . . . 'Until such times,' Aunt Ailsa had said on the day she took you to Grandmother's house . . . 'Until such times as I can find a proper place for you and me to bide. For you should be at school."
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"And biding with Grandmother . . . Until Such Times . . .' You could never tell when Until Such Times had passed. But you began to recognize its passing."
Aunt Ailsa was a bit of a stumbling block and the antipathy that Edith, who the young narrator refers to as the Invalid Aunt, feels towards her. As it turns out Edith is critical of Aunt Ailsa who she sees as at the least flighty and at worst loose and manipulative. The two women are sisters and for some unknown reason, though the reader can infer lots of things by this time, her daughter calls her Aunt Ailsa. The child's father? Another opportunity for the reader to fill in the blank.
"'She's my Aunt Ailsa', you said, protective of a relationship that was acceptable. 'She's my Aunt Ailsa . . . she's not my mother!' The implication of the Invalid Aunt's words had penetrated at last, sending you hurtling towards her bedchair."
When the child hears that Aunt Ailsa is coming home but that she is bringing a male guest, the Invalid Aunt speaks disparagingly of her (and the man), it is illuminating for the reader in order to understand how the family dynamics are and how each works against the other. It also goes a long way in explaining that final momentous sentence and the implications of a possible final deed.
Jessie Kesson only wrote a handful of books (which, I think, Virago published back in the day--in the 1980s). I wonder how much of her own life proved inspiration for her work. Although she wrote, she also did other things, like cleaned a local cinema, was an artist's model and for many years was a social worker in London and Glasgow. Another Time, Another Place, the novel I set aside takes place in Scotland during WWII where Italian POWs are kept and throw the lives' of the locals into disarray.
I'm glad I had another opportunity to read her work and now won't be so shy about giving one of her novels another try.
Next up a story by Leonora Carrington.
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Last week's New Yorker story (from the March 30 issue) "This is an Alert" by Thomas Pierce is a wonderful mixture of the real and the surreal. Well, maybe not 'surreal' exactly, but a story that takes an average family going to visit relatives and drops them into a world slightly off kilter. There is no explanation of how or why the world has become what it has become, though it's not too much of a stretch that it might happen.
"This is an alert" is the announcement that is made every time when one of the many different drones used in a world warfare (fought high above the clouds) breaks into 'our' atmosphere. They might be completely innocuous--one of 'ours'--or maybe not. They might be filled with a biological or chemical weapon, so each member of each family (pets included) are given a gas mask (or as this family calls it--headsocks) that must be retrieved and put on each time the alert sounds. Which over the course of the story seems to grow in momentum and number.
The story is not particularly scary or unnerving, maybe because the family continues on (and even wants to try and rebel by not listening to the alerts), but it is a perfect story for the times. It's thoughtful and entertaining. You can read the Q&A here. Pierce's New Yorker story from 2014 was equally good and one of my favorites of last year!