Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

Every once in a while, a book comes along to remind us just how unimaginative most contemporary writers are about the possibilities of fiction. Scottish author A.L. Kennedy’s novel Day proves to be just such a healthy shock. It is a story of World War II, but it is just as much about the visceral nature of language. Kennedy is particularly fascinated by language’s power to describe war, where, amid melting flesh or even just the memory of it, words are all a mind can hang on to.

Her novel unfolds in the mind of Alfred Day, a British former airman and prisoner of war, who in 1949 finds work as an extra in a film about POWs, apparently trying to recapture the sense of belonging he experienced with his crew. Alfred revisits harrowing details of bombing runs over German cities, his parents’ abusive relationship and his postwar job at a London bookshop. He tries to gather meaning from a storm of sentences: remembered snatches of lost letters, old songs and the slippery stories of the other veterans he works with on the film set.

Kennedy’s writing shows off language’s potential, but also acknowledges its limits. Alfred confronts his terrible past, but this won’t give him the closure he wants; instead, his thoughts end up documenting what turns out to be his own mental breakdown. But even as Kennedy pilots her story into madness, she maintains breathtaking control, weaving the voices reverberating in Alfred’s head into a poetry that hovers between the physical and psychological ruins of war. Throughout, Alfred’s stern interior dialogue with himself exposes the power of words and memories, and also the blind spots of a single person’s mind.

—Jonathan Taylor

Kennedy reads Wed 23.

By A.L. Kennedy. Knopf, $24.