In A. L. Kennedy's intense novel,
Day, we meet Alfred Day, a man growing a
mustache and trying to understand the panic, terror,
disease and pain of war. World War II has ended, and
the boys have come home, but some, like Alfie Day,
have residual hurt, horrible dreams and regret.
Alfie joined the Royal Air Force when he was 16 so
that he could have adventure and get away from his
father. He was captured after a failed bombing
mission and imprisoned in Germany. After the war, he
wanders home and gets a job in a bookshop because he
loves to read. When an opportunity comes along to be
an extra in a movie about a prison camp, Day takes
the chance. His small job at the bookshop with Ivor,
another walking casualty, can wait until he finds
himself again, if that self still exists.
The film set is crowded and disorienting, and there is not much for Alfie to do. With its maze of huts, platoons of prisoners, and fake German officers, it is eerily similar to Alfie's real life experience as a prisoner of war. Every event on set prompts a memory: playing ball with Pluckrose and the boys, dropping bombs as a gunner, walking through the snow with Ringer, and meeting Joyce. As each memory rolls over him, he begins to realize the senselessness of some and the pain of others. Older memories from before the war of hurt and pain as a child, plus observations of fights on the film set, only further prove that Alfie's war did not start or end with Germany.
Yet, through these black moments, there is joy in the form of Joyce, the love of Alfie's life. His memories of her, along with touching moments of camaraderie between Alfie and the other RAF boys, provide a few bright moments in a narrative that is otherwise replete with death, pain, and regret. Alfie struggles with his role in the war, and the close relationships he remembers remind the reader that he is sensitive and human. Alfie is not an easy protagonist to love, he's too hard edged and dirty mouthed for that, but he is sympathetic, and Kennedy's illustration of his evolution will prompt understanding from the reader.
Day is emotionally charged and raw. The writing is sharp, acidic, and real. Just as Alfred's mind lights from thought to thought, image to image, so does the prose. In one paragraph, we are in the camp, watching a concert, and in the next, we are listening to a conversation between Alfie and Pluckrose. The point of view changes from first person to second person to third, as Kennedy takes us in and around Alfie's thoughts. Many critics agree that the impact for the reader is jarring, yet we are made to feel as Alfie does: out of touch, boundless, grasping for straws. But Kennedy never leaves us too long in confusion; she tells us about an event and then loops back later to explain, so that we discover the significance and import as Alfie does.
This disorienting prose style is the true strength of Day; in fact, it's the key that makes the entire story work. Without the constant shift of perspective and non-linear story line, we would never stand in Alfie's shoes, and that's the whole point. We must follow Alfie, be Alfie to the end, because learning what Alfie learns is the ultimate lesson of life, a lesson that may ultimately save us from war.
About the Author
Alison Louise Kennedy was born in 1965 in Dundee, Scotland. After studying English and Drama at Warwick University, she served as Writer in Residence at Hamilton, East Kilbride Social Work Department, and Copenhagen University. She has edited various magazines in the United Kingdom, and has been a judge for the Mann Booker Prize (1996) and The Guardian First Book Award (2001). She was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 2000. Granta nominated her as one of 20 "Best Young Novelists" in 2003. She is the recipient of the Encore Award (1995). In addition to her writing career, she is also a stand-up comedian and an ordained minister, and has even been known to sell brushes door to door and mime in car parks. Her work is known for its dark comedy and unique, post-modern prose style. She lives and writes in Glasgow, Scotland.
For more about A.L. Kennedy (who, incidentally, hates it when reviewers talk about the writer when they should be talking about the book!) see the comprehensive FAQ at her website, which includes her answer to the much asked question, "Why do you write under your initials?". To which she replies:
NOT because I wanted to be androgynous
NOT because I wanted to signal that I'm gay (I'm not)
NOT because I'm a feminist (I'm a humanist)
NOT because I wanted to give endless journalists the chance to write acres of nonsense about two letters.
I was worried that if I ever got published people would come and complain if they knew who I was, so I wanted to hide. (I didn't know how impossible anonymity is these days) And, rather more centrally, the authors I first loved all had initials J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S.Lewis, E.E. Nesbitt., E.E. Cummings (I know he's not for kids, but I liked him for his melodies) and I actively didn't want to know who they were, or have them get in the way of my enjoying their story and their voice which was much closer than they could be, given that it was partly inside me.
This review was originally published in January 2008, and has been updated for the March 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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