Saturday 9 February 2013

Ordinary Domestic by Carol McKay - A Review

Ordinary Domestic, a collection of fifteen stories, most of which have been previously published in literary journals (Gutter, Chapman, Cencrastus and others), represents a sample of McKay’s work from 1999 to the present. The stories vary widely in settings and themes, from the wistful ‘What Mattered About The Dancing’, about a blind woman who finds freedom in dancing lessons, to ‘God’s Jewels’, in which an old man reminisces about his boyhood on a Scottish island. These are delicate, moving stories, but McKay does not shy away from the big issues. Other stories in the collection deal with child sexual abuse, wife-battering, unwanted pregnancy, homosexual rape and depression. Interestingly, the reader soon discovers that McKay is not a writer who condemns. Rather, she presents her characters and their situations in such a way that the reader has to make up their own mind. She wants the reader to understand her characters, to understand the choices they make or are forced to make.

In ‘Frozen Waste’, the first story in the collection, we meet Jack. He’s down on his luck, sleeping rough in a scrap yard full of old refrigerators. I’ll come to the story in a moment, but it is clear from the beginning of Ordinary Domestic that McKay is an extremely poetic storyteller, especially when describing settings:

The rain-blackened playground with the pitch lines luminous.

This is just one example of the lyricism that is an integral part of McKay’s style.

So, to ‘Frozen Waste’. Jack is on the run – but on the run from what? We don’t know, although alarm bells soon start ringing when he comes across a young girl hiding in the shed where he has been sleeping. He immediately identifies her as ‘Primary Six’. I had to stop short here. Why would a man identify a child in terms of the class they attend at Primary school? This is part of the way McKay has crafted the story, because we learn that Jack used to be a Primary school teacher.

Jack clears his throat. ‘Who knows you’re here?’ he asks, in dangerous territory.

Now the alarm bells are really ringing. A Primary school teacher on the run? A young girl in his hiding place? He wants to know if she is alone? It would have been so easy for the writing to get hysterical at this point, but that’s not the way McKay plays it.

The girl asks:

‘What are all those fridges here for anyway?’
He stares at them. ‘They’re a danger to society. They’re filled with poison and have to be locked away.’


‘You should stay away from the fridges,’ he tells her.

Slowly, the tension in this story becomes unbearable. The girl disappears. Her father comes to the dump and confronts Jack:

‘What have you done with her?’

At this point, Jack takes flight yet again. Why? Is he guilty of something? The reader is still wondering why he is on the run in the first place. The fact is, however, that we don’t know. Is he the monster that is being subtly hinted at throughout the story? What terrible thing has he done that made him run away, that forced him to live like this?

I won’t give away the ending, but I have to say that the story was unsettling in the extreme. However – and this is the point – McKay writes in such a way that the reader is on Jack’s side. Perhaps not on his side, exactly, but you definitely want to give him the benefit of the doubt. As I said before, McKay doesn’t condemn – she makes you think.

‘Unrestricted’ is the story of Kerry and her boyfriend, William. Kerry is pregnant, almost due, and William couldn’t care less. He has other things to worry about as he races cars on his Playstation – he has a court hearing coming up. He doesn’t seem too concerned about the fact that he will probably go to prison. Kerry, however, is worried about being left alone with the baby:

‘What aboot me?’ Ah says tae him.
‘He glared at me. ‘Whit aboot you? You’re no goin inside.’

William would rather go to prison than be free with Kerry and their baby. Kerry, however, remains optimistic. They might just tag him, she hopes. This is a theme which appears in many of the stories in this collection – the neglected (or worse) woman who tolerates the behaviour of her partner. But McKay avoids being prescriptive. She isn’t saying how things should be – she isn’t trying to preach. She isn’t even suggesting solutions. She is describing how things are, and how people cope with the situations they find themselves in. Kerry knows that she shouldn’t put up with William’s behaviour, but what can she do? Has she got other options?

Ah nodded tae the room aw roon me. ‘Look at me! Ah feel as if Ah’m in a fuckin prison right now!’… ‘Ah feel trapped.’

When she confronts him with this, William pulls out a knife:

‘Dae ye want me tae cut ye free then?’

Kerry is terrified, but the moment passes when William realizes he has run out of cigarettes. He orders Kerry to go and buy some. She lifts her case and tells him she is going to leave it at her mother’s. It is obvious she won’t be coming back, but all William does is turn up the volume on his Playstation…tryin tae droon it aw oot.

‘Flight’, the penultimate piece in the collection, tells the story of Bird, a doctor working in Africa. He returns home to Scotland after his mother dies. The house is empty. Alone, he thinks back to his childhood, and how his family rejected him when they found out he was gay. His homosexuality was something his brother always taunted him about. It was his brother, however, who died of AIDS after using an infected needle. Bird wonders if he should have stayed in Scotland all those years ago. If he had done that, would they have accepted him? But it is too late now – everyone in his family is dead. The atmosphere that McKay creates in this story – the old, freezing house, the dust, the utter loneliness – reminded me of Bernard Mac Laverty’s ‘Life Drawing’. ‘Flight’ and ‘Life Drawing’, although dealing with the same theme (a son trying to cope with the loss of a parent) are completely different stories, of course, but I wanted to note the comparison, not only because of the shared subject matter, but because both stories are excellent. 

There are just a couple of things I would have liked to see McKay do differently. Perhaps the title story is a little rushed towards the end? Is the ‘flying’ motif in ‘Grave News’ a bit too laboured? These are minor criticisms, and I’m sure these two stories will grow on me when I go back to read them again, which I certainly will.

Ordinary Domestic is a tremendous collection from one of the most assured voices in contemporary Scottish literature. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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Ordinary Domestic by Carol McKay is available on Amazon co uk and Amazon com.

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