This story is from A. L. Kennedy’s Original Bliss. In a number of very favorable reviews of this collection, critics noted Kennedy’s predilection for characters who can be moved only by extreme circumstances, as if their responses have been dulled by more quotidian offenses, together with the puzzles in her work that challenge a reader’s comfortable responses to realistic fiction. This second characteristic is apparent in “Breaking Sugar,” which focuses on the relationship between the unnamed female narrator, a married former academic, and her boarder, Mr. Haskard, a systems analyst. While her husband, Nick, is at work, the narrator follows Haskard’s direction to take the furniture out into the lawn so she can see how “dead and insubstantial our achievements and defenses are” (114). Haskard’s strangeness is also marked by his hobby: He travels to places where people have been wronged—the site of “a supremely avoidable mining disaster” or “the pool where Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins was thrown, bound hand and foot” (119)—to say he is sorry. Haskard apologizes for what the reader imagines is his complicity as a member of the offending human race. Typically Kennedy makes it hard for us to know what to make of this: Certainly there are things for which we should feel guilty, but just as certainly it seems wrong to think that we can ever adequately apologize for them. Our desire to express solidarity with Haskard’s efforts is undercut when we discover that the photos he takes of these sorry landscapes “had a certain emptiness, as if he had arrived too late to catch the heart of it” (119). If this is the sum of our response, Kennedy suggests, it is not enough.
The narrator and Haskard consummate their unusual relationship by smashing sugar cubes with a hammer against a breadboard, unleashing flashes of violet light. This aesthetic experience is written as if it had epiphanic undertones for the narrator. Maybe something significant is being released by this act, but again, Kennedy through her narrator, deflates the scene when she explains that the explosions are a natural process, part of the breaking of the sugar’s crystal form. The narrator keeps this nocturnal activity secret from her husband, even when he tastes the sugar on his bread. It would be easy to see the act of breaking the sugar cubes aligned with Haskard’s apology, as if by apologizing he too was releasing light or energy heretofore trapped in the landscape. But then, where does the light come from in these scenes of culturally sanctioned tragedy, and is it right to make equivalent, for example, “torture and execution of Welsh resisters” (119) and the narrator’s personal, aesthetic-epiphanic moment in the kitchen? And what does it mean that the residue of such experiences adds a barely perceptible sweetness to the food we eat?
Kennedy’s stories often probe the gulf between what makes her characters do and what her readers are willing to bear, and “Breaking Sugar” is no exception. In mostly flat and realistic prose, Kennedy presents a strange woman’s relationship in terms that are only subtly upsetting, but then offers little direction about how to interpret her story.
Kennedy, A. L. Original Bliss. London: Jonathan Cape, 1997.