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Learning about love and creation

Everything You Need by Scottish novelist A.L. Kennedy, due out this week, is set on Foal Island off the coast of Wales, home of possibly the world's smallest and certainly most hazardous writer's colony. There are only six members of the Fellowship on Foal Island when Mary Lamb, aged 19, who just has been awarded a "Llangattock Bursary," arrives as number seven.

The number seven figures significantly in this novel _ there is a legend of seven foals that explains the island's name, and this is Kennedy's seventh book _ but its connection to myth, legend and, at one point, the gate of the underworld, is strictly symbolic and atmospheric. This is not a work of fantasy or speculative fiction.

Neither is it a comedy. As the novel opens, one of the Fellowship members, Nathan Staples, a commercially popular but artistically frustrated and disappointed novelist, is preparing to choke himself to death. Nathan has prepared refreshments and soothing ointments, in case his attempt should fail, as it does. But Foal Island has a high incidence of accidents and injuries. Another member of the Fellowship, the poet and playwright Ruth Alvey, was once a victim of shark bite, and another resident later on in the novel has her own brush with a shark. Mary Lamb's predecessor, Llangattock, died after stumbling in a dark workshop where a saw was running, cutting off his head and both hands.

Kennedy's theme is "the impossibility of creation without love," and its crux is the relationship between Nathan and Mary Lamb, whom everyone on the island except Mary knows from the beginning are father and daughter, separated when Nathan's wife, Maura, left him when Mary was 4 _ and then left her to be raised by two uncles in remote Chapel Gofeg.

Kennedy, who seems fiercely devoted to Welsh and Scottish nationalism, is icily funny in describing London literary life, and the perils of literary success. Says one editor about to depart a London publisher's party: "In heaven there are many mansions and in hell there are many houses _ all of them publishing."

Kennedy is funny, biting, uncompromising, a real original, and a writer who deserves wider attention. This novel won't be every reader's cup of tea, and I can't recommend it as a beach book. But Kennedy's vision of attunement with land, sea and the elements is an interesting complement to the vision of American writers like Don DeLillo and Robert Stone, so attuned to the conflict between mass culture and the spiritual needs of the individual. Kennedy, in harkening back to a setting of myth and mystical oneness, reaches her vision of contemporary life by traveling as far from it as one can possibly go.

David Walton's novel The Garden Show will be published in early 2002 by the Carnegie-Mellon University Press.


By A.L. Kennedy

Knopf, $25.95, 549 pp