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Book review: “Looking for the Possible Dance” by A. L. Kennedy

After an idyllic four days, the fight begins on the drive home.

Margaret notices with delight that she and Colin have had such a restful time that they’ve forgotten to latch on their seatbelts.

“It’s called being relaxed,” Colin says. “Some people do it all the time.” Margaret thanks him for the weekend, and Colin responds, “You don’t have to thank me. I wouldn’t have gone without you, wouldn’t have thought of it. And it’s been so lovely to see you so happy. So calm. You were almost like a different person.”

Ah, that’s the seed of what comes next — of Colin suggesting that Margaret quit the job she hates, and Margaret getting mad that he doesn’t respect her work, and Colin getting his feelings hurt that she’s misunderstanding him, and Margaret getting so angry that she demands he stop the van so she can get out and take the Underground.

Margaret walked slowly to stand by the passenger door. Stooping down…, she paused for a while, simply watching Colin’s face. He seemed upset, less angry, and more liable to cry. She knew she didn’t want him to be upset. She knew she didn’t want him to drive away. She knew she didn’t want to apologize.

Anyone who’s ever been in any relationship of any depth knows these feelings.


That’s the great richness of A. L. Kennedy’s writing here in her first novel “Looking for the Possible Dance,” set mainly in Scotland and published in 1993. She chronicles with delicate nuance the pull-and-tug of love, both within her characters and between her characters. And the difficulty of living with that pull-and-tug.

The pull-and-tug of the “possible dance” of the title.

Mr Lawrence, Margaret’s tainted boss, and his tainted wife and their tainted marriage are one example of the failure of such efforts. And, to a lesser extent, the failure of the mother and aunt of the severely disabled James — they care for his physical needs but have no sense of the inner man who communicates with spirit and wit in notes he writes to Margaret during a train trip.

Certainly, the relationship of Margaret and Colin has its own sets of starts and stops.

Like the fight in the car. And like their closeness while making love:

She started to kiss his hair, knowing things had begun and wouldn’t finish for quite a while. Colin was changing under her lips, the way he always did. He became almost a boy and quite like an animal, or perhaps a blinded man.

Courageous, maybe foolhardy

In this novel, Kennedy is a courageous, or maybe foolhardy, writer. She weaves into the story a single piece of extraordinary — and extraordinarily shocking — violence. There are hints throughout the book, and then, near the end, the incident occurs.

And I had to wonder, at that moment, if it overwhelmed Kennedy’s fine-grained examination of Colin and Margaret’s love.

This question is complicated because, prior to my reading “Looking for the Possible Dance,” I scanned a description of the book which mentioned the violent incident with greater specificity than I’m providing here. I knew it was to come, and so was looking for it.

I’m sure it twisted my perception of the novel. (This is why I rarely look at a book review before reading the book, or a movie review before seeing the film.)

Too much?

So, whether for someone reading the novel fresh or for someone with the sort of baggage that I brought to it, is the shocking violence too much?

I don’t think so.

I’m not sure if I can adequately articulate the artistic reasons for why it works, but the novel — violence and all — works. Kennedy has done much to embed her characters in a real world with dialogue and actions that ring true. And it’s a world, as constructed, that is strong and sturdy enough to also include this great shock.

Part of that construction has to do with the delineation of the characters. Take Margaret, for instance.

She seemed to have been born set in her ways. In harsh weather, she wanted to be without shoes and gloves and socks. She would squirm them off, only to have them replaced for fear of coldness. She would cry and start to squirm again. Margaret would lie on her stomach, and not on her back, so her father would faithfully change her about, for fear of her smothering. She would rather dangle, upside down, from the slope of her father’s lap, something forbidden, for fear of her eyes being turned. She would worm to the edge of his knees, like a little seal, until her head hung in mid-air. She had a photograph of herself in just such a position.


Another part has to do with a leavening of humor, such as this notice posted by Margaret’s clueless boss at the drop-in center where they worked:


REMEMBER the REPUTATION of the CENTRE is in your hands. Although the CENTRE is open to all, ANTISOCIAL BEHAVIOUR, POLITICAL DEBATE and agitation on behalf of DUBIOUS MINORITIES cannot be tolerated. No YOUNG CHILDREN may be left UNATTENDED, no TOOL, FURNITURE, ELECTRICAL GOODS, PETS, CURTAINS OR LINOLEUM may be stored and under NO CIRCUMSTANCES may CREDIT be extended by the CAFÉ. CLIENTS are not to be encouraged to linger on the premises without CONSTRUCTIVELY OCCUPYING their time. SINGING, DANCING, FIGHTING, DOMINOES, or OTHER GAMBLING, ALCOHOL, CHIPS, FISHING MAGGOTS and CLIMBING BOOTS are forbidden. As are RELIGIOUS TRACTS of the ALTERNATIVE kind.


I’m not sure which part of that I find funniest. Maybe “DUBIOUS MINORITIES,” or “RELIGIOUS TRACTS of the ALTERNATIVE kind.” Perhaps it’s simply the wonderfully wacky and wackily erratic capitalizations throughout.

Photos of signs like this are posted daily on Facebook.

“Full of birds”

And part of the successful construction of this novel — probably the most important part — has to do with Kennedy’s way with language.

Mr Lawrence waited, rubbing one hand across his face, as if he really wished it would go away.


Margaret found they spoke less. She would catch herself taking his hand while they walked…It happened that they would touch and touch again, as if they were continuing one movement, or perhaps letting it flow around them like a cloud, a liquid or a light.

…she woke again and the morning was outside, waiting to fall through the curtains, full of birds.

Patrick T. Reardon

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