Gloomy days are here again

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 May, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 May, 1993, 12:00am

LOOKING FOR THE POSSIBLE DANCE By A. L. Kennedy (Secker, $135) A.L. KENNEDY appears to be suffering from her inclusion on the 1993 list of Best of Young British Novelists.

The list will almost certainly help the author's books, generate bitter controversy over who is included and who is left out, and subject those chosen to more than customary critical scrutiny.

Thus A.L. Kennedy has received fairly patronising reviews from The Times and The Independent on Sunday and an ecstatic endorsement from David Holloway in The Daily Telegraph.

Looking for the Possible Dance is an awkward work. It is hardly what might be called a ''good read'', in the sense of a book you would choose for a long distance air flight.

On the other hand, Ms Kennedy has the power to grip your attention, albeit sometimes with morbid fascination, sometimes with a wry smile and sometimes with irritation.

It is the kind of novel which used to be described as a ''kitchen sink drama'': an exercise in stark realism set among the lower orders. That was the general backdrop for works of this kind in the 50s and early 60s.

Ms Kennedy, however, is very much a writer of this decade and her novel is socially up-to-date.

In the Scotland of the 90s this means that the lower orders have been joined by a large slice of the downwardly-mobile middle class, like Margaret, the main character (not the heroine) of this work.

She is a university graduate working in a centre for the unemployed and others relying on social welfare assistance.

Her boyfriend has a classic 90s-type job, selling television satellite dishes.

A.L. Kennedy is no bleeding heart, she describes things as she sees them and lets the reader draw their own conclusions.

Every now and again she lets her guard drop and reveals a tremendous comic talent.

Here she is describing ''The Scottish Method (For The Perfection of Children)''. Among the list of prerequisites are the notions that ''guilt is good''; ''joy is fleeting, sinful and the forerunner of despair'' and ''life is a series of interwoven ceremonies, etiquettes and forms which we will never understand''.

Ms Kennedy is also clearly a very patriotic Scot.

Discussing a protest (not an unusual occurrence in the most radical part of the British mainland), she writes: ''They had decided they lived in a country where pointless gestures were all they had left to make. There was almost a nobility in that.'' Interwoven with a merciless eye for detail and ability to reproduce dialogue that leaps off the page, Ms Kennedy has lapses which can only be described as plain daft.

Thus we find Margaret on a train: ''The train has carried Margaret impeccably, never deviating from the track.'' Well, there's a tribute to dear old British Rail.

Maybe it is churlish to quibble over lapses of this kind, but they serve to annoy.

It would be nice to say that Looking for the Possible Dance is a story of triumph over adversity. However, this is not the case.

It rather more closely reflects the overwhelming sense of pessimism which grips Britain these days.

Margaret loses her slender chances of achieving a professional career in what are often called the ''caring services''. Her love life also slips away.

The novel ends at a point of hinted at, but still unexpected violence.

The passages describing what happens to Margaret's boyfriend are hard to read but gripping.

The ability to surprise and shock is clearly one of the strongest elements of this work.