In the context of this review it seems strangely appropriate that the first story I ever read by Leigh Kennedy was "Wind Angels." It was in 2001, and I'd just started subscribing to Interzone. I couldn't believe what I’d lucked into. Here was a selection of new science fiction stories by up and coming talent, the kind of fiction I needed to be reading by the writers I wanted to know about. The magazine seemed like a godsend to me and I read it from cover to cover, but it was Kennedy's story that stood out. I loved the lean directness of its style, its ballsy clarity, the way it made bold use of science fictional ideas but without ramming them down your throat. "Wind Angels" was set in a Britain suffering the effects of global warming, but it was not "about" global warming; it was about the relationships between people, the emergence and resolution of emotional crises. The fractured world those characters inhabited was metaphorical as much as actual, a reflection of interior lives as much as a definition of circumstance.
I wrote to the then editor of Interzone, David Pringle, saying how much I'd enjoyed this story and that I hoped to see more stories in the magazine by the same author. I tried looking for other writing by Leigh Kennedy, but soon discovered that her two novels and previous collection of short stories were out of print. We didn't have Abebooks back then, second hand titles were harder to track down, and so it was some years before I was able to get my hands on them. I finally got to read Kennedy's first novel, The Journal of Nicholas the American (1986), in about 2005 and was completely blown away by it. Here was the considered use of language already familiar to me from "Wind Angels," the sparse, sinewy sentences, the surprising metaphors. I sensed the presence of a writer who was awkward in the best sense of the word, who was excited by ideas and the idea of the novel. Not a reckless writer, but a brave one. The story she was telling—of a young man of Russian background and empathic powers struggling to come to terms with his peculiar ancestry and his identity both as an American and as a human being—was dynamic and original, yet so quietly worked, so subtle. She got the Russian details right, too. Not everyone does. As in "Wind Angels," Kennedy had used SF to illuminate rather than to define her story, a tactic I found myself wholly in sympathy with. I was envious of the seeming ease of her technique.
I re-read Nicholas again recently, and found it just as good if not even better. I happen to think it’s one of the most unjustly neglected works of speculative fiction of the last quarter century. Kennedy published one more novel (an edgy, poignant, and richly imaginative story of the nuclear age entitled Saint Hiroshima, 1990) and a collection of stories, Faces (1987), before going quiet. Now, twenty years later, we finally have a new collection from Kennedy comprising those stories she has written in the years between then and now. The stories, many of them previously published in magazines and anthologies, bridge the gap between Kennedy's emergence as a young writer in America and her relocation to the UK in the mid-eighties. (An unfortunate mix-up in the printing of Wind Angels, however, resulted in some earlier stories being included in its advanced reading copies—and thus mentioned in its early reviews—which are not present in the final product. These stories are available in Faces, which though out of print is well worth tracking down.)
Most of the stories in Wind Angels were written during the years Kennedy spent raising a family and, one would assume, trying to make sense of herself as a writer within the context of her adopted country. In her introduction to the collection Kennedy refers to herself as "a soggy chunk of bread filled with the broth of two cultures." As a writer who identifies profoundly with the cultural and geographical landscape of my home country, I can only imagine the difficulty and pain of recalibrating myself to an alien environment. For Kennedy the experience would appear to have been traumatic as well as transformative, whilst ultimately strengthening and confirming her identity as a writer. This theme is directly addressed in "Jack in English," a previously unpublished story in which the narrator struggles to come to terms with his alienation in a foreign culture whilst knowing that, changed by his experiences, he will now also be an alien in the country he calls home.
I try to write to my girlfriend at home that, even in August, the evenings in England chill me. I sit in my room with my jacket over my shoulders . . . I feel sad. My home has become my past; this worries me because I have to go back to it next week when my language course is finished. (p. 157)
The snapshot of England as it appears to a foreigner is strikingly clear, a land of grey skies, chilly lodgings, and uncommunicative people, and the narrator's homesickness is palpable. When he is attacked on the street and mugged he has to dig deep within himself to find the strength to survive as an alien within a culture he is only just beginning to understand.
A science-fictional treatment of the same theme characterizes the earliest story in the collection, "Helen, Whose Face Launched Twenty-Eight Conestoga Hovercraft." First published in 1981 when Kennedy was still living in the US, this novella is a delightful fusion of two genres: the space adventure and the Western. The canvas-topped Conestoga wagons so familiar to us from TV Westerns have been remodeled as vehicles of the future, and like tourists flocking to the Oregon Trail, future backpackers flock to Evergreen Island, an outpost colony modeled on a town in Colorado where Earth-lubbers can satisfy their curiosity about living space-side. Ferrier runs a souvenir shop, but finds his livelihood threatened when Evergreen's governors want to outlaw the Cartesian divers he makes and sells. He is also hopelessly in love with Helen, a woman seriously disfigured in a hovercraft accident but as strong in mind and spirit as any Western pioneer. Junie, hovercraft pilot and nu-cowgirl, still blames herself for the accident and Helen's injuries. There is a love story at the heart of "Helen" that is all the more touching for being ultimately unresolved, and the story maintains its sense of wonder even as it blows apart the genres it satirizes. I found myself believing in Evergreen Island, and Kennedy's vivid sketches of life within this small and precarious community left me wishing I could have remained there for longer.
The subject of leaving home is portrayed still more starkly in "We Shelter." Published in the anthology Myth-Understandings in 2008, this story, which tells of a failed space expedition and its sorrowful aftermath, is the most recent story in the collection and seems to confirm that the theme of the alien abroad has never strayed very far from Kennedy's mind. By recounting events from the point of view of the aliens, Kennedy increases the emotional impact of her story by forcing us to identify with the human travelers whose space craft has crash landed in an icy wilderness. The few survivors are terrified, dying and a long way from home. The effect on the narrator, one of a race of empathic humanoids with the ability to relive each other's experiences, is doubly devastating as one of the dying humans seems to know her. "We Shelter" is just five pages long but it feels like a much bigger story, confounding our expectations and giving us a glimpse of ourselves from an unfamiliar angle.
Back on Earth, "Pieces" from 1986 is the tale of Jake, who with his wife Emily is one of the two surviving inhabitants of a once thriving Texas oil town called Gusher. That Jake has spent his whole life married to one woman but in love with another is revealed to us only gradually, as Jake tells his story to his friend Bill and muses on the meaning of the pieces of the title. It's a fine story, laconic and wise, a work that perfectly captures the pathos of passing time and shows how survival can itself turn out to be another form of alienation.
If cross-cultural migration is the strongest defining theme within this collection, then the questions surrounding our final migration—from life to death—comes a close second. In "Vida," we see how a girl who witnesses the murder of her mother undergoes a spiritual and possibly corporeal transformation, whilst in "The Preservation of Lindy," a deft, almost Ballardian tale from 1992, a husband and father reflects on the true meaning of mortality and the effect on a second marriage of a strange legacy from the first. "Golden Swan," previously unpublished, is set in a prison of the future where the ultimate penalty is the withdrawal of the anti-aging treatment which is now normal among the civilian population. In "Memories of Egypt" a couple embarking on a new relationship seem to be bound together by more than a casual attraction, and in "Tropism," first published in the anthology Afterlives in 1986, a grieving family are morbidly unwilling to let go of the past.
Perhaps the deepest ruminations on time, aging and the nature of afterlife can be found in "One Horse Town," a novella written in collaboration with Kennedy's close friend and fellow American Howard Waldrop. The poet Homer, haunted by images of war, enters into a dialogue with the spirits of the past, while in the modern age the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann makes a startling discovery when he begins his excavation of the city of Troy. In the landscape of "One Horse Town" the divide between the living and the dead is uncannily blurred. This story is both a beautifully worked reimagining of Homer's Iliad and a play on the idea of time travel. Most importantly it is an exploration of how stories are made. A lesser writer might have been tempted to end the story in our own time, with Schliemann's discovery of the mythical helmet of Priam. Kennedy sees it differently, closing with the image of the writer communing with his muse.
For a long time, he sat on his own. Later a man came to sit with him, chatting about who lived in the high city now. They talked about the war stories. The children played until the chilly dusk approached.
The voices from within had gone quiet. The war was over.
Ultimately, "One Horse Town" is not a story about the Greek myths or an archaeological expedition but a story about writing, about the intense and private process of imagining lives. The same could be said of "Bats," the story that ends the collection, an enigmatic yet curiously compelling tale of a woman who finds her bedroom invaded by bats. At first disturbed and repelled, the narrator gradually comes to accept and even welcome her strange visitors, seeing them, in a sense, as a part of herself.
My life was different after that, however. I know something powerful although it gives me no power. And I keep my window open wide enough even in winter, just in case they come again. (p. 229)
The bats, unnerving at first yet compellingly elusive and somehow wonderful, appear to be flying metaphors for creativity itself.
In her introduction to Wind Angels, Kennedy warns the reader in advance that the stories in the collection cannot be easily bracketed within any one genre. "If genre-jumping disturbs you," she says, "perhaps you had better search for a more entrenched author." Where Kennedy is described at all, she is most often described as a science fiction writer. There are science fiction stories in this collection, but there are also fantasy stories, romances, a brilliant little horror story. Most of all there are those stories that seem to shimmer at the boundary between one genre and another, or that fuse two genres together, one assumes with the intention of subverting both. One of the most invigorating aspects of a Kennedy story is that you can start on page one confident only in the knowledge that you have no idea of where this writer is going to take you.
When I first read The Journal of Nicholas the American the thing that affected me most strongly was the novel's stern determination on being true to itself. Everything I have read by Leigh Kennedy convinces me that she is a writer who is never afraid to take risks, to tackle a theme in a way that has not been tried before, to write about whatever idea happens to occur to her and to do so with dextrous originality. She is not a noisy writer but she is undoubtedly—as I suggested at the beginning of this review—a brave one. Wind Angels must be welcomed as the brave return of a writer to active duty. I for one would count it a great pity if we were made to wait another twenty years for her next book.
Nina Allan’s stories have appeared regularly in the magazines Black Static and Interzone, and have featured in the anthologies Catastrophia, House of Fear, Best Horror of the Year #2, and Year's Best SF #28. A first collection of her short fiction, A Thread of Truth, was published by Eibonvale Press in 2007, followed by the story cycle The Silver Wind in 2011. Twice shortlisted for the BFS and BSFA Award, Nina's next book, Stardust, will be available from PS Publishing in autumn 2012. Her website is at www.ninaallan.co.uk. She lives and works in Hastings, East Sussex.