SO I AM GLAD By A.L. Kennedy Alfred A. Knopf 275 pp., $23
Anyone curious about Scotland's contribution to the literature of today needs to know a bit about A.L. (Alison Louise) Kennedy. She has already produced three novels (of which "So I Am Glad" is the second to reach the United States), two short-story collections, and several plays. She is a reviewer, columnist, and one-time Booker Prize judge.
"So I Am Glad" is a darkly - repeat, darkly - funny account of an improbable meeting of two forlorn souls - a radio announcer, Jennifer Wilson, who shelters from the emotional roller coaster of her life in the invisibility she enjoys in her soundproof studio; and a reincarnated Cyrano de Bergerac, who after 350 years still yearns to be famous, "simply to fill up the space that any normal man would take as his right."
However, this is not the character with the big nose from the Edmond Rostand play. This is the real, historical figure - skillfully researched by Kennedy - who turns out to be no more of a misfit in the Scotland of 1993 than the lonely, long-suffering Jennifer who falls in love with him. Physical violence, political intrigue, and moral depravity have played a role in both their lives. At times, we watch incredulously as they strive painfully to connect not just with each other but with the "empty spaces" that haunt their minds during the time they are fellow boarders in a rambling house in Glasgow.
He is often weak yet always ready to duel to the death with anyone who dishonors him - and literally does! She is a purposeful dreamer who wants peace, rather than the "clumsily balanced disappointments" of hope.
He is frustrated by bouts of amnesia. She wishes she could forget the child abuse and sadism that scarred her early life, disturbingly recounted in the book.
Relief from these graphic scenes is provided by Jennifer's mischievous asides as protagonist and narrator. Also, by her stirring awareness of beauty, with its visions of "green leaves and narrow treetops, moored in a sky of impeccable, screaming blue."
Despite her reservations about hope, she cannot resist sharing with us the letter she creates in her mind for the ghostlike man whose presence is reshaping her self-awareness: "I do not want to be completed, I do not want to be opened up, or let free, or to live in any way more richly than I do now."
Jennifer also comes up with a cute disclaimer that might make some readers more comfortable with the whole fantastical exercise: "If you find what I tell you now rather difficult to believe, please treat it as fiction."
Whether that inures us to the unremitting despair that we endure on the road to light and love is a hard call that prospective readers will have to make for themselves.
*Kim Shippey is a former BBC radio announcer and a Scot.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society