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Mackay, Shena 1944–

Mackay, Shena 1944–

PERSONAL: Surname rhymes with "reply"; born 1944, in Edinburgh, Scotland; married Robin Brown (divorced); children: three daughters. Education: Attended Tonbridge Girls Grammar School and Kidbrooke Comprehensive School.

ADDRESSES: Home—15 Fortis Green Ave., London N2, England. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Moyer Bell, 549 Old North Rd, Kingston, RI 02881-1220.

CAREER: Writer, 1959–. Also worked as honorary visiting professor in writing, Middlesex University.

MEMBER: Royal Society of Literature.

AWARDS, HONORS: Fawcett fiction prize for Redhill Rococo; Scottish Arts Council Book Award, 1991, for Dunedin; Booker Prize short list, 1996, for The Orchard on Fire; Orange Prize for Fiction nomination, and Whitbread Award shortlist for best novel, both 2003, both for Heligoland.

WRITINGS:

NOVELS

Dust Falls on Eugene Schlumberger [and] Toddler on the Run (also see below), Deutsch (London, England), 1964.

Music Upstairs, Deutsch (London, England), 1965.

Dust Falls on Eugene Schlumberger, Panther Books, 1966.

Toddler on the Run, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1966.

Old Crow, J. Cape, 1967, McGraw (New York, NY), 1968, Moyer Bell (Wakefield, RI), 1999.

An Advent Calendar, J. Cape (London, England), 1971, Moyer Bell (Wakefield, RI), 1997.

A Bowl of Cherries, Harvester Press (Brighton, Sussex, England), 1984, Moyer Bell (Wakefield, RI), 1992.

Redhill Rococo, Heinemann (London, England), 1986.

Dunedin, Heinemann (London, England), 1992, Moyer Bell (Wakefield, RI), 1993.

The Orchard on Fire, Heinemann (London, England), 1995, Moyer Bell (Wakefield, RI), 1996.

The Artist's Widow, J. Cape (London, England), 1998, Moyer Bell (Wakefield, RI), 1999.

Heligoland, J. Cape (London, England), 2003.

SHORT STORIES

Babies in Rhinestones and Other Stories, Heinemann (London, England), 1983.

Dreams of Dead Women's Handbags, Heinemann (London, England), 1987, Moyer Bell (Wakefield, RI), 1994.

The Laughing Academy, Heinemann (London, England), 1993.

The World's Smallest Unicorn: Stories, J. Cape (London, England), 1999, Moyer Bell (Wakefield, RI), 2000.

EDITOR

Such Devoted Sisters, Virago (London, England), 1993, Moyer Bell (Wakefield, RI), 1994.

Friendship, Orion (London, England), 1998.

SIDELIGHTS: Scottish author Shena Mackay's novels about middle-class life in Great Britain have been praised for their dark humor and stylish prose. To quote Brigid Brophy in Listener, Mackay's talent "is to put the ruth back into ruthless rhymes…. Her novels are visions of universal anguish composed in short, sharp reels." A Times Literary Supplement reviewer lauded Mackay for "extrapolating vividly-observed ordinariness into alarming and exuberant fantasy," a feature of many of her novels and stories. Publishers Weekly contributor Michele Field explained that "Mackay's signature is recognizable from book to book: a sense of menace below the check-pattern of middle-class life; a subliminal eroticism charging everything … and a very sharp definition of time and place, of brand names and domestic manners—altogether, as if Harold Pinter were taking you through the contents of his kitchen cupboards." The critic went on to cite Mackay for the "peculiar mix of hilarity, surrealism and gloom that animate the commonplace world of her books."

Mackay was born in Edinburgh but moved south to England while she was still a youngster. She began writing when she was fifteen years old, and by the age of twenty-seven she had finished five novels—without the benefit of a college education. Her first book, a collection of two short novels, was published when she was twenty. After such early promise, she took a long hiatus from writing between 1971 and 1983. Since then, however, she has released a significant body of work, including a novel, The Orchard on Fire, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize.

Mackay displays a dour take on the world. Many of her characters live in poverty and are emotionally damaged as well. It is this very dreariness that appeals in the author's work, however. A Publisher's Weekly reviewer noted, for instance, that Mackay "is a poet in spirit who happens to write paragraphs about ordinary lives that turn out never to be quite ordinary." In New Statesman and Society, Judy Cooke observed that "Mackay's keen ear for dialogue is complemented by the precision of her descriptive writing. She can evoke a mood or point up a meaning with one or two carefully chosen images…. She has a great talent for comedy in the English tradition."

The darkly humorous An Advent Calendar, for instance, begins with a butcher's assistant who accidentally slices off his finger and grinds it with meat that is later sold to another unfortunate character. The grim tone of the novel is heightened by the fact that its events take place during the Advent season leading up to Christmas. In A Bowl of Cherries the central character reminisces about a time when she was sick and her mother brought her a bowl of cherries—only to sit and eat them all herself. "Mackay's writing—adroit, intelligent and evocative—is a joy," declared Walter Satterthwait in a New York Times Book Review appraisal of A Bowl of Cherries. "Almost casually, she tosses off images that are striking in their precision and their lyrical use of the commonplace" and creates "a lovely book, entertaining, insightful and, in the end, deeply satisfying."

Mackay's best-known title is The Orchard on Fire, a harrowing tale of childhood in a small village in Kent. Eight-year-old April lives with her struggling parents, who have come to the village to run a tea shop. Despite her budding friendship with red-haired Ruby Richards, April finds herself in troubling circumstances when she becomes the object of unwanted attention from the wealthy Mr. Greenidge. In the New York Times Book Review, Roxana Robinson stated: "The novel satisfies on many levels. Ms. Mackay's characters are both convincing and wonderfully varied. She also demonstrates perfect pitch…. 'The Orchard on Fire' is an intensely domestic novel, but this is not a limitation. The book's touching and somber drama arises from much larger elements: love, loyalty, courage, sex, fear and oppression. Ms. Mackay explores them all with clarity, elegance and power." A Publishers Weekly correspondent commended The Orchard on Fire as "a finely wrought and touching novel," animated by "the throb of real life among blue-collar families."

Mackay has also published several short-story collections, most notably Dreams of Dead Women's Handbags. According to Katharine Weber in the New York Times Book Review, the collection "includes further evidence of Ms. Mackay's startling precocity, but it also displays the more recent, elegant work of a developed writer who has continued to fine-tune her distinctive voice over an unusually broad range." The critic continued: "There is perhaps a touch of Ms. Mackay's Scottish origins in her poetic and melodic language. Her descriptive precision and imagination are matched by a talent to surprise."

In the The Artists Widow, Mackay weaves together the story of Lyris, widow of successful artist John Crane, and an assortment of people who gather together for a showing of John Crane's last work before he died. Lyris, a painter herself, is concerned about the loss of her own creativity. Nathan, her grandnephew, is a despicable and boorish conceptual artist. Other characters include Clovis, a middle-aged bookseller, and Zoé, a beautiful young filmmaker who approaches Lyris about doing a film about forgotten women artists. As the talented and "wannabes" mix, Mackay "explores the issues of artistic creativity, moral values and friendship," wrote a Publishers Weekly reviewer. The reviewer added, "She writes in language as quick and lethal as a snake's tongue." Ann H. Fisher, writing in Library Journal, commented that "Mackay … has written a wonderful, very funny, and insightful novel."

In her collection The World's Smallest Unicorn, Mackay presents eleven stories about what a Publishers Weekly contributor described as "life's odd pots." Her stories include tales about a writer who visits a home for retired clowns, a man who returns to London to find a family he is no longer familiar with, and a woman who develops an unnatural fear of meeting the daughter of a friend. A Booklist contributor noted that the author "has an eye for the small moment and quirky detail, which helps define her characters," while in Publishers Weekly a critic commented that the stories comprising The World's Smallest Unicorn "capture a wide range of voices, settings and styles within finely tuned tales bearing one commonality: their excellent surprise endings."

Mackay combines a series of stories to the tell the tale of Rowena Snow in Heligoland, which made the short list for the prestigious Whitbread Award. Beginning with Rowena as a child in a baby carriage, the stories progress through the woman's life as she is orphaned, ends up in a boarding school, and, as an adult, takes on the role of housekeeper in a place called Nautilus, once the home of a bohemian community. Now lived in by two fading eccentrics, poet Francis Campion and Celeste Zylberstein, the widow of a man of letters, the architecturally unique house soon has another boarder in Gus Crabb, an antiques dealer. For the first time in her life, Rowena seems on the verge of happiness as she instills a new sense of vitality within the decaying domain of Nautilus. Writing in the Independent, Stevie Davies felt that while Mackay's book is "shaped as a myth of renewal" it does not work on a "narrative level." Nevertheless, Davies went on to note, Heligoland's "twin strengths lie in its sensitive treatment of Rowena and in the lyricism that lifts the creaky plot to something bizarrely beautiful, a technique which displays its own artificiality, like literary enamelling." Guardian contributor Peter Bradshaw commented of the book that "The writing is superb, and of that unassuming, unworked-up kind that comes only from an author whose gentle mastery of language is quite beyond showy displays of technique." In the London Telegraph, Jane Shilling also praised Heligoland as "a slender, intelligent fiction written in ravishing prose that combines richness with translucency, luminous affection for human strangeness with an anatomist's precision."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Best Sellers, March 1, 1968.

Booklist, September 15, 1994, p. 114; September 15, 1996, p. 220; October 15, 1997, p. 388; November 1, 2000, Mary Ellen, review of The World's Smallest Unicorn, p. 519.

Books and Bookmen, September, 1967.

Guardian, March 1, 2003, Peter Bradhsaw, review of Heligoland.

Illustrated London News, July, 1967.

Independent (London, England), March 1, 2003, Stevie Davies, review of Heligoland.

Library Journal, September 15, 1993, p. 104; August, 1994, p. 136; October 1, 1996, p. 127; September 1, 1997, p. 224; June 15, 1999, p. 109; June 15, 1999, Ann H. Fisher, review of The Artist's Widow, p. 109.

Listener, June 15, 1967; July 8, 1971.

New Statesman, June 12, 1964; July 2, 1971; October 21, 1983, p. 27; February 14, 1986, p. 27; August 28, 1987, p. 21.

New Statesman and Society, July 10, 1992, p. 34; July 30, 1993, Judy Cooke, review of The Laughing Academy, p. 39.

Newsweek, January 17, 1966.

New York Times Book Review, February 25, 1968; January 17, 1993, p. 11; December 18, 1994, p. 7; November 3, 1996, p. 11; December 14, 1997, p. 22; July 18, 1999, p. 16.

Observer Review, June 11, 1967.

Publishers Weekly, September 21, 1992, p. 74; August 16, 1993, p. 86; August 22, 1994, p. 42; September 12, 1994; August 12, 1996, review of The Orchard on Fire, p. 62; December 2, 1996, Michele Field, "Shena Mackay: The Menace of the Domestic," p. 36; July 14, 1997, p. 62; May 10, 1999, review of The Artist's Widow, p. 53; September 4, 2000, review of The World's Smallest Unicorn, p. 82.

Saturday Review, March 2, 1968.

Spectator, July 10, 1971.

Telegraph (London, England), February 2, 2003, Jane Shilling, review of Heligoland.

Times Literary Supplement, June 15, 1967; July 2, 1971.

ONLINE

Contemporarywriters.com, http://www.contemporarywriters.com/ (August 16, 2003), "Shena Mackay."

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